Muhammad Ali was an icon with a boxing career that more than speaks for itself. Every aspect of Ali’s life experience, including his Muslim faith, his Civil Rights activism, and his time in the ring, all seem to be fairly well-documented at this point. What many may not know about The Greatest, however, is that he was something of a visual artist in his private life, with a cache of original Muhammad Ali artwork that was sold recently by Bonhams New York at their Park Avenue Headquarters.
According to Ali’s obituary in the New York Times, the boxer’s father Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. was “a church muralist who blamed discrimination for his failure to become a recognized artist.” There were early signs that Ali had inherited that artistic inclination from his father. Apparently, throughout high school, “the only subjects in which he received satisfactory grades were art and gym.”
This is pretty in keeping with the rest of what we know about the man’s character. His charisma combined with his sharp way with words made him one of the most exciting sporting personalities the world has ever seen. At “TCM Presents… It’s a Knockout Sale” by Bonhams Popular Culture department on October 5th, 26 of his 28 original paintings sold, making a total of US$945,500 (AU$1.29 million) – over three times the original low estimate. For a bloke that never had any formal training in the arts, this is not a bad turnaround at all.
The highest selling artwork of the day was Ali’s Sting Like a Bee (1978), which depicted a triumphant KO victory for himself and the referee running away out of pure fear. It was sold to a British collector for US$425,000 (AU$581,861), a price that ended up being 10 times the low estimate of US$40,000 (AU$54,763). He made the piece while filming the 1979 movie Freedom Road in Mississippi.
Elsewhere in the sale, a 1979 canvas painting aptly titled I Love You America sold for US$150,000 (AAU$205,500), and a 1967 felt pen sketch that alludes to Ali’s faith fetched US$24,000 (AU$32,900). The works came from the collection of the boxer’s close personal friend, Rodney Hilton Brown. Hilton Brown was the publisher of a series of editions by Ali based on serigraphs commissioned by the World Federation of United Nations Associations. He is also the author of the recently published Muhammad Ali: The Untold Story: Painter, Poet & Prophet, which further depicts this lesser-known aspect of the decorated boxer’s life.
Five years on from his passing, it is a testament to the enduring legacy and cultural impact of Muhammad Ali that his artwork – something he was never especially known for – can garner so much attention and money. It also speaks to the talent of the man, that he is still accomplishing greatness from beyond and that we continue to learn new dimensions to such a storied individual’s personality. Not even death can stop Ali.