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Sporting Immortality on Canvas: The Market for Art by LeRoy Neiman

Sporting Immortality on Canvas: The Market for Art by LeRoy Neiman
February 29, 2024
Dylan Dittrich

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The O-Pee-Chee Hockey case may have been the most expensive item of the weekend, but it wasn't the largest, not by a longshot. That honor goes to the 9x8' Legends of Basketball painting by LeRoy Neiman, a work so large that photos required the inclusion of a Heritage employee standing next to it for scale. Seventy-two square feet of brightly colored sporting immortality.

As sports card and memorabilia prices consistently infringe on territory previously reserved for fine art, the intersection of the two categories demands further exploration. Sports art, with select exceptions, has long failed to gain acclaim and appreciation in the high-brow world of fine art, fielding a reputation more kitschy than museum-worthy. On the flip side, while works of sports art have their niche sports-collecting audience, they aren't among the most coveted sports collectibles. That leaves art in a middle ground of sorts, looked down upon by the fine art world and - perhaps partially because of the lack of validation there - not held in the highest esteem in the world of sports collectibles.

The select exceptions that have gained reputability in fine art circles are rare but fascinating nonetheless. Some of those exceptions come in the form of portraits by Andy Warhol, and given his knack for exploring our cultural icons in greater depth, renowned athletes serve as fitting subjects. Original paintings and screenprints alike have experienced appreciation in the 2000s, albeit mixed in magnitude. Perhaps most notable is the $18.1 million sale of an original Muhammad Ali portrait in 2021 at Christie's.

Other exceptions have only recently gained notoriety, as works from the likes of Ernie Barnes - a former football player in his own right - rise in reputation. Others still are cherished for their broader cultural symbolism, like L.S. Lowry's £8 million Going to the Match, which is representative of a timeless way of life in northern England. But again, these are more the exception than the rule.

Within the friendly confines of sports-specific auction events, the occasional work of original sports card art aside, one artist reigns supreme above the rest: LeRoy Neiman. Neiman boasts a credential no other artist can touch. At the end of Rocky III, when Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed engage in a friendly sparring match, and the frame freezes as they throw their initial punches, the scene transforms into a colorful expressionist painting. The artist? You guessed it. LeRoy Neiman. The artist also made cameos as a ring announcer in Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V, and Rocky Balboa. The clout!

That bright and colorful expressionist aesthetic is a mainstay in Neiman works, depicting our sporting heroes in action in a way that immortalizes them in glory. His work was consistent, commissioned fodder for programs and magazine covers, further heightening its notoriety. Those household names of the traditional art world aside, Neiman stands alone in the ability of his works to frequently capture six-figure prices at auction, rising above the clutter of less regarded sports works and artists that struggle to break out of low five-figure territory.

But here's the problem.

Neiman's market, at least the high-end of it, hasn't moved materially in the past 10 years. Until this past weekend, Neiman's top auction sale (not even of a sports scene) of $167,400 dated to 2012, narrowly tailed by a $167,300 result achieved by a Babe Ruth painting at Heritage in 2013. During the early-to-mid 2010s, a flurry of high-end activity shaped Neiman's market, but that momentum seemingly stalled. In recent years, sales have failed to test those record levels, though that's likely due in part to a lack of desirable consignment, which nods favorably to a sticky collecting base. Where there have been repeat sales, mostly in a lower tier of his market, results have been mixed or often underwhelming.

But the stagnation paused last weekend when the 72-square-foot Legends of Basketball painting sold for $186,000, establishing a new Neiman auction record.

The massive work was the basis for the 1977 All-Star Game program cover, and its size is befitting of the icons it features, Wilt, Russell, Kareem, Willis Reed, and Julius Erving among them. The gargantuan work and its recent sale could provide a spark to a market in need of one.

Should the Venn diagram of those who collect art and those who collect sports memorabilia grow larger as the prices and venues of sale look increasingly similar, one could see how new demand might surface for unique sports art. Nobody boasts a better-positioned catalog for that increasing overlap than Neiman.

And if movie memorabilia should continue to ascend alongside those categories, then ring the bell, because the fight for the original Rocky III painting will be on.

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