“Lot number 5A is the Kerry James Marshall, and I’m going to start the bidding at $6 million,” announced auctioneer Oliver Barber at the Sotheby’s contemporary auction last May. The painting in question was Pastime (1997) which depicts African Americans enjoying a picnic in a way that echoes Seurat’s 1886 Un dimanche après-midi à la Grande Jatte and Manet’s 1863 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The bids soared, hammering down at $18.5 million – $21.1 million with fees – breaking the previous record for a living African-American artist. Just two days later, Marshall’s gallerist Jack Shainman announced the buyer on Twitter: “Congratulations Kerry James Marshall for continuing to make history. And congratulations @diddy for an amazing acquisition, we are excited about your plans for the future of the painting.”
“I knew about it and we’ve talked about it, and I think that it has more meaning than just wanting to have a painting by Kerry James Marshall,” says Maria Brito, who knew about it because she has worked as the art adviser to the rapper and entrepreneur Sean Combs – alias Diddy or P. Diddy – for about seven years.“ It was very important for him as a black entrepreneur and man of wealth to have something that is so meaningful, and it’s also historical.”
The idea of becoming an art adviser germed after seeing others in action. “They don’t know what they’re talking about, they don’t have passion,” she remembers thinking.
Brito’s path to becoming an art adviser to the rich and famous wasn’t so straightforward. The Venezuelan-born New Yorker spent her formative years in Caracas, during a time of political turmoil that saw her leave the country just before Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. “It was bad even before Chávez because of the lack of social justice and opportunities. You oppress people by keeping them stupid so they carry on voting for you, you know what I mean? I really wanted to leave.” So she applied to the top U.S. law schools – NYU, Columbia, Chicago and Harvard – and was accepted at all of them. “Of course I was going to Harvard because nobody says no to that,” exclaims Brito, who admits she suffered from imposter syndrome during her first six months at the prestigious school. But she went on to graduate from Harvard and passed the New York State Bar Exam on her first try, afterwards working at an internet start-up before spending eight years as an attorney at a corporate law firm.