“The Greatest”: Muhammad Ali’s Art hits Bonhams Auction House

by Sarah Lee

092121B-300x157 "The Greatest": Muhammad Ali's Art hits Bonhams Auction HouseThe collectibles auction world is booming with activity right now! Even though GoCollect usually focuses on comics and video games, sometimes an auction catches our eyes that we just can’t help but dive into. Did you know that Muhammad Ali was a prolific artist, in addition to being an athlete and cultural icon? Muhammad Ali’s art only adds to the Ali legend. In just a few days, Bonhams Auction House will be auctioning a collection of rare original paintings, drawings, and sketches by “The Greatest” himself, Muhammad Ali, as well as some other items priceless to the sporting community.

If you’re an art collector, then Bonhams is an auction house you will be glad to keep up with. This privately-owned international auction house is one of the world’s oldest and largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. Over the years, it’s seen countless priceless pieces come across the auction block, and this auction is no different. This time, they’re auctioning artwork created by Muhammad Ali and various pieces of sports paraphernalia belonging to other icons. In fact, this sale offers the largest collection of Muhammad Ali’s art ever seen at auction. All the Ali works originate from the collection of Rodney Hilton Brown, author of Muhammad Ali: The Untold Story: Painter, Poet & Prophet. Let’s take a look at a few pieces of Muhammad Ali’s art and some other sports memorabilia that Bonhams is offering in their upcoming auction.

image-16-300x292 "The Greatest": Muhammad Ali's Art hits Bonhams Auction House

More than a Fighter

Muhammad Ali wore many different hats during his lengthy career in the public eye. He was known for his skills in the boxing ring, his controversial religious beliefs, and his civil rights activism. In this auction, while you have the opportunity to bid on pairs of his ring-worn boxing gloves or impressive photographs taken of the athlete by the legendary Andy Warhol, the real gems in this auction are the paintings and other pieces of art created by Ali himself.

He never received formal training as an artist, but his family had a love for art instilled in its roots. Ali’s family was made up of several artists, musicians, and craftspeople.  In fact, his father, Cassius Clay, Sr., was a sign painter and muralist who installed ecclesiastical paintings in Baptist churches throughout Kentucky. According to Ali’s obituary in the New York Times, the boxer’s father “blamed racial discrimination for his failure to become a recognized artist.” image-14-109x300 "The Greatest": Muhammad Ali's Art hits Bonhams Auction House

From Darkness, Beauty

Several of his brightly-colored drawings were inspired by his life experiences.  Plenty of art is centered in the fighting ring he so often called home. The struggles he’d faced while dealing with racism were frequent subjects. Discrimination was something with which Mohammed Ali was all-too-familiar. He also enjoyed producing art that represented his love for the religion of Islam.

Let My People Go, 1978

This piece is a felt pen on paper piece of art. It is signed “Muhammad Ali” in the lower-left corner and dated “12-19-79”. It is presented along with a color photograph of Ali and Rodney Hilton Brown with this artwork at the United Nations on April 13, 1979. image-13-226x300 "The Greatest": Muhammad Ali's Art hits Bonhams Auction House
According to Bonhams, “This painting is Muhammad Ali’s original painting that was unveiled at the United Nations, April 13, 1979, for the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid. Ali hoped to use his artwork to speak out against Apartheid in Namibia and South Africa.

In presenting his painting, Ali read a 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.” Ali’s painting was made into a set of limited edition serigraphs and first-day cover to be sold by the World Federation of United Nations Associations. The original painting showed a white man whipping a black man. As it was, it was considered too politically inflammatory. The white man was removed for the purposes of the official UN edition.”

This piece is valued and estimated to sell between $40,000 and $60,000.

Sting Like A Bee, 1978

This piece of Muhammad Ali’s art incorporates felt pen along with acrylic paint on paper. It is one of the more recognizable Ali works. This is, in part, thanks to the iconic poem he included on the picture.
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Muhammad Ali painted this piece during the filming of Freedom Road in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1978.

“The painting shows a victorious Ali standing over his opponent in the ring with his opponent saying “Ref, he did float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!” whilst the referee is fleeing the ring saying “Yes, if you were smart, you run like me”. The phrase “Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee” was first uttered by Ali in 1964 before his first fight with Sonny Liston. Still going by his birth name of Cassius Clay Jr., Ali was considered the underdog; Liston had reigned supreme as the World Heavyweight Champion for two years and Ali taunted Liston in the weeks before the fight and before he entered the ring he pronounced “Float like a Butterfly. Sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.””

This work is the only artwork to include the complete Muhammad Ali poem and is valued between $40,000 and $60,000.

I Love You America, 1979

Last but not least is a framed acrylic on canvas painting featuring a miniature Stars and Stripes flag. It is signed in the lower right corner, “Muhammad Ali” and dated “Feb 1-19-79”. image-17-300x213 "The Greatest": Muhammad Ali's Art hits Bonhams Auction House

According to Rodney Hilton Brown: “By 1979-1980 Ali’s patriotism and attitude toward his country had come full-circle. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Ali’s fight for social justice outside the ring had made him an “Enemy of the State.” It had brought him, enemies, from the left and the right, made him hated, reviled, and almost sent him to prison. But through it all, Ali stood his ground and “took nothing from nobody.”

But in doing so he had won something more than just boxing matches – he had won the heart and respect of the nation and – indeed, of the world…Ali conquered and changed America, and as a result, America changed Ali…Indeed, in the end, his direct, penultimate, unmistakable, unequivocal message painted in red, white, and blue Flag colors, on February 1, 1979, spells his recognition and appreciation of this in the simple words: “I LOVE YOU AMERICA.”

This piece is estimated to sell between $15,000 and $20,000.

Other Iconic Sports Entries

In addition to Muhammad Ali’s art, this auction also features items from a rare collection of sports memorabilia amassed over many years by Jim and Theresa Earle. Jim Earle was a prolific and selective buyer of artifacts and objects relating to some of the world’s most important sports stars.

Highlights from this collection include:

A 1957 Carmen Basilio Hickok Award Belt image-18-2 "The Greatest": Muhammad Ali's Art hits Bonhams Auction House

“This 14K yellow gold championship belt buckle was awarded to Carmen Basilio by the Hickok Foundation, December 1957. This is the same year he was named Fighter of the Year by The Ring magazine and the Boxing Writers Association of America.” – Bonhams

This piece is estimated to land between $100,000 and 150,000.

A Babe Ruth Baseball Spike From His Red Sox Daysimage-19-e1631891248494-300x205 "The Greatest": Muhammad Ali's Art hits Bonhams Auction House

“This spike was a gift from Babe Ruth to his manager. It has a distinctive toe plate that makes it a striking match to the pair Ruth donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. This was the collection’s very first acquisition. 

After disagreements with management, Ruth’s contract was sold to the New York Yankees. Soon, he would become an icon.  He eventually left the Red Sox to deal with the ‘Curse of the Bambino,’ a World Series dry spell that lasted over 80 years.” – Bonhams 

This item’s value is estimated between $80,000 – 120,000.

Final Bell

Through Muhammad Ali’s art, he found an outlet. That outlet provided him a release from the hardened image of a fighter he had portrayed for many years. He found real joy in his works, using bright colors to express himself and his inner thoughts through the hobby. Muhammad Ali led a life that was remarkable in so many ways. The fact that he could find even more ways to surprise and delight us holds a unique place in the worlds of sports, arts, and passion. Bonhams’ “TCM Presents … It’s a Knockout!” opens on Oct. 5th at 1pm. A preview of the auction will be on public view from October 1st through October 3rd at Bonhams, New York.

“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” Muhammad Ali.

Will you be checking out any of the entries in this auction? Let us know in the comments!

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