Sean “Diddy” Combs, founder of Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group (Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg)

Sean Combs Drops $21 Million on a Canvas by Kerry James Marshall

(Bloomberg) -- Hip hop entrepreneur Sean Combs was the buyer of a monumental painting by black artist Kerry James Marshall that fetched $21.1 million at Sotheby’s this week.

Combs, 47, bid through Sotheby’s staffer Jackie Wachter. His friend, Swizz Beatz, was sitting in the front row of the salesroom on Wednesday, recording the bidding war on his phone and later Facetiming with Combs. Jack Shainman, who represents Marshall in the U.S., confirmed that Combs was the buyer, setting an auction record for a living black artist.

Sean Combs Drops $21 Million on a Canvas by Kerry James Marshall

"He’s a visionary,” Shainman said in a telephone interview, referring to Combs. "It’s a collection with an eye toward the future."

The New York Times identified Combs as the buyer earlier Friday.

Marshall is among the country’s top contemporary artists, with growing demand from museums and private collectors -- and rising prices. Long overlooked and undervalued, black artists now occupy one of the market’s hottest corners. This week, Sotheby’s set records for 24 black artists who donated works to raise money for Studio Museum in Harlem (the 42 lots totaled $20.2 million, more than doubling the high estimate.)

The painting “Past Times," 9-by-13 feet, depicts an idyllic scene in the shadow of a housing project. Black residents, clad in white, play golf and croquet, picnic on a red and white checkered blanket and water ski -- a riff on Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte," which is at the Art Institute of Chicago. The unstretched canvas was a centerpiece of Marshall’s acclaimed traveling retrospective that made a stop at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016-17.

Sean Combs Drops $21 Million on a Canvas by Kerry James Marshall

Estimated at $8 million to $12 million, it was sold by a municipal authority in Illinois. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority purchased it for $25,000 in 1997. Typically the seller gets the hammer price, which in this case was $18.5 million.

The previous auction high for a living black artist belonged to Mark Bradford, whose painting "Helter Skelter" fetched $12 million at Phillips in London and was purchased by the Los Angeles museum founded by Eli Broad.

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