Muhammad Ali’s Little-Known Art Becomes a Hit on the Auction Block

Muhammad Ali, Sting Like a Bee

Muhammad Ali, Sting Like a Bee (1978). Courtesy of Bonhams New York, collection of Rodney Hilton Brown.

More than a dozen artworks by boxer Muhammad Ali sold in a New York auction on Tuesday for nearly $1 million. The auction, held by Bonhams at its Park Avenue headquarters, included 26 little-known drawings and paintings that Ali made in the 1970s. They sold for a total of $945,500.

Ali’s Sting Like a Bee (1978), an image of Ali’s boxing-ring victory, set a record for the athlete’s art, selling to a British collector for $425,000. The price was 10 times the low estimate of $40,000. He made the piece while filming the 1979 movie Freedom Road in Mississippi.

Elsewhere in the sale, a 1979 painting on canvas reading “I Love You America” sold for $150,000, and a 1967 felt pen sketch that alludes to Ali’s faith fetched $24,000.

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The works came from the collection of the boxer’s confidante, Rodney Hilton Brown. Brown was the publisher of a series of editions by Ali based on serigraphs commissioned by the World Federation of United Nations Associations.

For the World Federation series, he made a drawing, for example of Let My People Go (1979), which shows the whipping of an enchained Black man. It was censored by the government agency for its depiction of racial violence. Never before had the original drawing come to auction, and it sold for $72,800, against an estimate of $40,000.

In selling the works by Ali, Bonhams was tapping a rising demand for memorabilia by historical sports figures. Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have recently been peddling more of these offering to entice a base of collectors with new money and a penchant for nostalgia. But Bonhams went one step further than those houses, even claiming that Ali’s work could be considered “Outsider Art.”

The prices seen at Bonhams were far larger than the ones typically seen for Ali’s little-known art. Robert Rogal, director of New York’s Ro gallery, said that since the he had been selling Ali’s prints for as little as $1,000. Rogal’s print trove of 500 editions, which he acquired in the 1980s, has mostly diminished, however. In an interview, Rogal said, “With the images that were created by these icons, estates today are very collectible.”

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