The game worn Air Jordan 1 sneakers from 1985

Picasso, Van Gogh — Nike?

It took the art world some time to adjust to sneakers and sports memorabilia becoming a collectors’ category similar to works by renowned artists, but when Sotheby’s broke the record for the most expensive sneaker ever sold with the game-worn and signed Air Jordan 1 sneakers, it knew it had something special.

“The auction signifies that there’s a robust group of collectors at different levels,” said Brahm Wachter, Sotheby’s director of e-commerce development.

The sneaker phenomenon kicked off in 2019 with Stadium Goods when a Nike Moon Shoe sold for a record $437,500. That led to the sale of other memorabilia including Michael Jordan’s “shattered backboard” game jersey with Stefanel Trieste; LeBron James’ “King James” Miami Heat jersey, and game-worn sneakers from Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Stephen Curry.

The auction house also noticed interest from hip-hop memorabilia collectors after its first hip-hop themed auction in September, which Wachter said was “an eye opener.”

This acceptance for sneakers, sports and hip-hop memorabilia is validating to collectors and enthusiasts who have long seen value in these mediums. And it also shows the influence sneaker culture has on different communities.

Most notably, Sotheby’s adopted a drop model in its soft-launched, buy-it-now marketplace that offers watches, jewelry, automobiles and sneakers valued as low as $500 and as high as $150,000 (the model officially launches globally this spring). So far, a moon shoe has sold for $150,000, and game-worn and signed sneakers from Shaquille O’Neal and a Blue Ribbon Sports bag have also been offered. The model will officially launch in the spring.

“We’re aiming to cater to a part of the market that hasn’t been fully addressed yet,” Wachter said. “We’re combining the worlds of vintage sneakers, modern sneakers and memorabilia. In 2021, we’re going to look to use a drop model for these top 5 percent of sneakers, focus on announcing them beforehand and do a more coordinated drop, and we’re going into the category as quickly and aggressively as we can.”

Wachter said there are a number of new clients from the U.S., Canada and countries in Europe that are consigning items, and sneaker collectors are upgrading their collections as the market matures. In 2020, 70 percent of Sotheby’s auctions were held online and the number of buyers under 40 years of age doubled.

The drop model is similar to the Cult Canvas sale in September 2020 that included auctions of artist-designed sneakers such as the Futura and Nike’s collaboration Dunk sneaker; Paris SB Dunks featuring artwork by late French painter Bernard Buffet, and the Staple Pigeon sneakers.

“We tried to educate the buyers on the artists that are involved,” Wachter said. “Futura came up with Basquiat and is now designing sneakers. Some of these artists and designers never imagined Sotheby’s would sell these objects as art one day.”

But not every piece brings top dollar. Paris SB Dunks, for example, are listed for as high as $150,000 on StockX, but the highest bid is $36,788 on a size 10 1/2. Sotheby’s estimated the model would sell between $70,000 and $80,000, but the bidding was closed without a buyer.

Sotheby’s is also finding increased interest on sneakers attached to celebrities. For instance, Kanye’s Nike Air Yeezy was auctioned in the From the Archive sale and sold for $17,500. Wachter predicts 2021 to be the year a sneaker will sell for $1 million. He also foresees game-worn sneakers to continue to climb in value as he considers them “historically undervalued assets,” and for early Nike models to increase in value as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary as a corporation this year alongside the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The auction house in December 2019 sold the original Olympic Games manifesto for $8.8 million, a world record for sports memorabilia.

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