A collection of rare drawings and paintings by legendary boxer Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) has sold for a knockout $945,524 (£693,788) at Bonhams in New York. Ali’s fruitful art career surprised many after he passed away five years ago from a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Hailed as ‘The Greatest’, Ali continues to be celebrated around the world as a champion heavyweight boxer, civil rights activist and poet. But little known was Ali’s passion for creating art. His father was a professional altarpiece artist, who encouraged the athlete to paint from an early age. Ali even had lessons from sports artist LeRoy Neiman (1921-2012).
“Muhammad Ali was a cultural icon who defined a generation. His artwork depicts those subjects close to his heart: Boxing, Civil Rights, Religion and World Peace and Humanitarianism,” said Helen Hall, Bonhams Director of Popular Culture, before the sale.
In total, 28 lots were sold at the ‘TCM Presents…It’s a Knockout!’ auction by art collector and Ali’s friend Rodney Hilton Brown. The cache of original works was auctioned off alongside two boxing gloves and four landscapes by Ali’s father, Cassius Clay Sr. All but two of the lots were sold, netting overall three times more than expected.
Speaking about his involvement with Ali in 1977, Brown recalled “I had taken over a failing art gallery in Soho, and I was looking for a world class famous figure that could paint some paintings that we could make limited edition prints of and sell.”
One of the most anticipated artworks in the sale, ‘Sting Like a Bee’, sold for more than ten times its pre-sale estimate fetching, $425,000 (£311,853). Ali painted this work in Mississippi whilst starring in the TV mini-series ‘Freedom Road’ in 1978. A poem included in the painting references the famous catchphrase Ali used to describe his boxing: “Ref! he did float like a butterfly and sting like a bee! Yes, if you were smart you run like me!“
Another artwork, entitled ‘Let My People Go’, was presented by Ali in 1979 at the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid with the poem: “Spread the word around the world/Tell both friend and foe/I’m fighting for freedom for South Africa/So, let my people go.” Afterwards Ali was commissioned by the World Federation of United Nations Associations to create a series based on the drawing, but despite this the artwork was still deemed too controversial at the time.