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Muhammad Ali, Chris Evert among 10 Andy Warhol sports portraits up for auction in November

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Composite image of some works from Andy Warhol's Athletes series.

New York

ANDY Warhol portraits of boxer Muhammad Ali, tennis star Chris Evert and other prominent athletes from the 1970s will be sold at a New York auction in November.

The likes of former Brazil footballer Pele, American golf champion Jack Nicklaus and retired American figure skater Dorothy Hamill are also featured in the group of 10 silkscreen paintings commissioned by late collector Richard Weisman.

These will go under the hammer at Christie's postwar and contemporary art auctions on Nov 13 and 14 in New York, the company announced on Monday. Ali is expected to be the top lot with an estimate of US$4 million to US$6 million.

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Some of the Warhols on offer drew headlines a decade ago when they were among works reportedly stolen from Mr Weisman's home in Los Angeles. At the time, he said he planned to forgo the hassle of an insurance claim.

"Thankfully, the works were returned to the Weismans unaffected and have since remained part of the family collection," Christie's said in a statement.

Mr Weisman, the son of Los Angeles collectors and philanthropists Frederick and Marcia Weisman, was a friend of Warhol's and approached him with an idea to combine his two passions of art and sports.

"Andy didn't really know the difference between a football and a golf ball," Mr Weisman said in a 2003 book he published about his collection.

So it was Mr Weisman's job to select the athletes, according to Christie's. One basketball player demanded a complete set of portraits, rather than the single portrait of himself that was being offered.

He was substituted with future basketball Hall of Fame inductee Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose portrait is estimated to fetch US$300,000 to US$500,000.

Warhol spent two years photographing the athletes with his Polaroid Big Shot camera. The artist went to Ali's training camp for the shoot while several other athletes came to pose at his New York studio, according to Vincent Fremont, the former executive manager of the studio.

"To get Muhammad Ali to pose without his shirt on was pretty good," Mr Fremont said.

The works were completed between 1977 and 1979. Each measures 258 square centimetres and will be sold separately. In 2011, the entire group fetched US$5.7 million at auction. The composite low estimate for the 10 works in November's auctions is US$6.2 million.

The collection was initially "a flop", Mr Weisman's daughter, Abby Weisman, said in an interview. "It was an odd idea because at the time these worlds didn't mix at all. It was quite different from the society portraits and movie star portraits."

Three works in the auction - featuring Pele, Hamill and Abdul-Jabbar - are listed as "recovered" on the Los Angeles Police Department's website tracking stolen prints and paintings.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation returned them in 2015, according to Sara Friedlander, who oversees Christie's postwar and contemporary art department in New York. Mr Weisman had wanted the art more than the insurance money, she said.

The auction house is offering pieces individually, not as a set. Unlike some of Warhol's other works, they are not editioned and each painting is unique. Ali, Evert, Pele, Nicklaus, Abdul-Jabbar and O J Simpson signed their portraits.

The iconic images have appeared over the years in magazines and billboards, promoting everything from sportswear to cars and breakfast cereal.

"The sports stars of today are the movie stars of yesterday," Warhol said, according to Mr Weisman's book. Mr Weisman's eclectic collection at Christie's also includes pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Norman Rockwell and Alberto Giacometti. BLOOMBERG