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Artwork by boxing legend Muhammad Ali brings in big money at New York auction

Sting Like a Bee
Courtesy Bonhams/Collection of Rodney Hilton Brown
From the Collection of Rodney Hilton Brown, formerly President of Hilton Fine Arts, Ltd., publisher of Muhammad Ali's limited edition silkscreen prints, 1978. Exhibited: Muhammad Ali: World Premier Art Exhibition, Roseland Grand Ballroom, New York, January, 1979.

More than two dozen paintings, drawings and sketches by the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali were hot-ticket items at an art auction in New York Tuesday.

The 26 pieces of original artwork by The Greatest, who was born and raised in Louisville, that sold this week during the sports memorabilia auction raked in a total of $945,524. That number greatly exceeded the expectations of the international auction house Bonhams. 

The top lot was a 1978 work titled “Sting Like a Bee.” It went for $425,312, 10 times more than its lowest pre-sale estimate. 

Done largely in felt pen, Ali created it while working on the film “Freedom Road” in Mississippi. It depicts his first fight against the then-world-heavyweight-boxing champion, Sonny Liston. In the artwork, Ali hovers over his fallen opponent. A word bubble from the figure on the ground contains the phrase: “Ref, he did float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!”

Bonhams reported that a British collector of Ali mementos acquired the “Sting Like a Bee” work.

Helen Hall, director of Bonhams Popular Culture Department, said this was “a world auction record for an artwork by Muhammad Ali.”

It’s rare to find Ali’s artwork on the market in the first place, she added, and “this [body of work] really was a sort of unknown and undiscovered treasure trove.”

This treasure trove came from the private collection of Rodney Hilton Brown, who wrote the book Muhammad Ali: The Untold Story: Painter, Poet & Prophet. 

Hall said Hilton Brown worked with Ali in the 70s, and has “held on to the collection ever since.”

“In fact, he told me it's been in boxes under his dining room table for the last 40 years,” she said.

The money from the sales will go to Hilton Brown, and a portion will be donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's research, a Bonhams spokesperson said. Ali had a decades-long battle with the disease.

While boxing was a prevalent theme in the Ali art up for auction, he also reflected on causes that were important to him, Hall continued. 

“He tackled issues of civil rights and race riots and all of those things that were very poignant to him at the time in the 1960s and 70s, which sadly are still issues that are poignant today,” she said.

This story has been updated. 

Stephanie Wolf is LPM's Arts & Culture Reporter. Email Stephanie at swolf@lpm.org.