Newsreal: The Stuff of Champions

A Beverly Hills auction of Muhammad Ali memorabilia -- without the champ's presence or consent -- is a heady mix of glitz, boredom and overspending.

Published October 22, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- there was something for everyone, and everything had its price.

Muhammad Ali might not have been happy about it, but he wasn't there. It was his life and times that drew the 150-plus crowd gathered to Christie's in Beverly Hills last weekend. Under a billowing tent, the auction house set the bidding loose on more than 3,000 Ali items, from the historical (the 1966 letter sent by Ali to the Selective Service requesting a draft exemption) and whimsical (a Winston cigarette that Ali yanked out of a boxing historian's mouth and autographed) to the peripheral (posters, programs, ticket stubs, scorecards) and dubious (dozens of Ali-endorsed products such as shampoo, shoe polish and the ever-popular roach traps).

The auction was touted as a celebration of a hero's life, except that the hero didn't share in it. Like any self-respecting Hollywood event, the sale was a cocktail mix of glitz, boredom and self-congratulatory gestures, with routine gossip and backbiting thrown in. The day's final haul: $1.3 million. Most of it went to a Los Angeles businessman, Ronnie Paloger, who assembled the collection of memorabilia because of his adoration for the fighter. "I love you, Muhammad," Paloger signed his introduction to the Christie's $100 catalog.

But love has its limits. When Ali expressed displeasure at the sale of some cherished personal items -- "Somebody stole my stuff," he was quoted as saying last month -- Paloger took offense, backing off from a commitment to donate a portion of the proceeds to Ali's pet nonprofit organization, the World Healing Project. "Mr. Paloger regrets that he has decided not to make a contribution to the World Healing Project," the note on Christie's addendum sheet read.

So, we were witnessing the commodification of a hero, albeit with the prestigious dressing of a Christie's auction. Stuff, good stuff, was being sold. As soon as the auctioneer raised her voice and thwacked her hammer to close a bid, I couldn't help but feel a wave of excitement. "You think I could get the Ken Norton poster for 500 bucks?" my brother whispered, flipping through the glossy catalog.

The crowd was as diverse and oddly assorted as the items being auctioned: Ali fanatics, auction-house junkies, sports personalities, press, movie stars, serious, poker-faced bidders and the gawkers who studied them. Leaning against a wall, a handful of young guys decked out in sports attire -- complete with cell phones to keep up on the football scores of the day -- high-fived one another each time one lifted a paddle to bid. Hovering nearby was the mustached art dealer from Chicago hoping to nab a canceled Ali check. An aging, self-described international supermodel in a black micromini and sunglasses fanned herself impatiently with the catalog. Perched on a folding white chair in one of the back rows was an attractive Japanese man with a monocle, a sports commentator on Tokyo television. "I am missing the Universal Studios tour," he confided. He had already spent more than $60,000 at the auction.

As so often happens in L.A., the maybe-famous slipped through the crowds, seemingly unnoticed -- like actor Robert Townsend and the guy who used to play Carla's husband on "Cheers." There was an elderly gentleman who was interested in one item only: an authentic Ali mouthpiece. His interest was purely professional, he explained. He was a dentist who provided mouthpiece services -- "not just mouthpieces, but full periodontal treatment and care," he emphasized, for boxer Oscar de la Hoya. "Mouthpiece services are the secret weapon in boxing, the stealth fighter," he told me. Looking at a photograph of Ali's yellowing and cracked mouthpiece, the dentist shook his head sadly. "They didn't have the technology back then. It's not a surprise that he broke his jaw," he said. When the mouthpiece later sold for $2,000 to another buyer, the dentist grinned in my direction.

With more than 3,000 items on the block, the event dragged on for hours. By the late afternoon, with the free lemonade and Pellegrino gone and the third auctioneer standing at the podium, the atmosphere started to take on a post-party, bedraggled feel. Those of us left grumbled about the heat and the prices. "I could have bought a Sonny Liston robe for $200 a couple of years back," one of my new boxing collector friends said sadly. "But now, we're in the big leagues." Hearing that the robe Ali wore in his classic fight with George Foreman in Zaire sold for over $140,000, Don Scott, publisher of Boxing Collectors News, chortled, "It's the Jackie Onassis phenomenon all over again. Some of those people walked out with the boxing equivalent of a $10,000 strand of fake pearls. Auction houses like Christie's have always been really good at turning out people with more money than brains."

Two Christie's employees who were taking a smoke break after the auction was over put it another way. "At least the robe went really well," one said to the other. "Yeah, it made up for a lot of schlock in between," his friend said as they headed out into the radiant Beverly Hills sunlight.

By Ellen Umansky

Ellen Umansky is a writer whose work has appeared in Playboy, the Boston Phoenix and the Detroit Free Press.

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