Rare artworks by legendary boxer Muhammad Ali sell for close to $1 million

On auction by Bonhams, one of the most sough-after works was a 1978 sketch titled 'Sting Like A Bee'

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More than two dozen rare paintings, drawings and sketches by legendary boxer Muhammad Ali were auctioned off on Tuesday, fetching close to $1 million.

The artworks went under the hammer at the Bonhams auction house in New York. A centerpiece of the collection was an artwork titled Sting Like a Bee, which sold for $425,000.

Ali painted the work in 1978, while filming the historical mini-series Freedom Road.

"Ref, he did float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!" reads the speech bubble from a boxer knocked out by an opponent whose arms are raised in victory. Ali famously used the phrase to describe his boxing style.

One of the most significant figures of the 20th century, Ali was a lauded athlete, activist and poet. His passion for art was little known but he liked to sketch as a way of unwinding after a fight or training.

Some of the works for sale were traditional nature paintings, while others were more personal cartoon-like sketches.

A 1979 red, white and blue painting on canvas, with the words "I Love You America," sold for $150,000, while a 1967 sketch in felt pen comparing Islam to Christianity fetched $24,000.

"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," Helen Hall, Bonhams director of popular culture, said before the auction.

The auctioned artworks came from the collection of Rodney Hilton Brown, a long-time friend of Ali’s.

"He never claimed to be a great artist," Brown told CBS News. "He knew he was the greatest boxer in the world, but when it came to art, he said to me, 'I paint pictures with meanings.'"

The former world heavyweight champion, who converted to Islam in 1964 after winning the title for the first time, went by the name Cassius Clay before changing it. He died in 2016 aged 74 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

With additional reporting from Reuters

Updated: October 06, 2021, 12:29 PM