For Sotheby’s, Sneakers Are Suddenly Very Big Business

Rembrandt, Picasso, Warhol and... Nike

March 23, 2021 6:16 am
Rare sneakers on display
Air Jordans that are part of Sotheby's "Scarce Air" sneaker auction

Brahm Wachter became the Head of Sneakers at Sotheby’s … last week. This is not because he was new to the company— Wachter had previously been their Director of E-Commerce Development. But while sneaker culture has been lively and active for decades, if not centuries, it’s a marker of the times that such a title now exists at the legendary auction house. And while Sotheby’s has been auctioning — and selling, through their Buy Now program — sneakers intermittently, having a dedicated program for the footwear is a phenomenon that’s a little less than a year old. In fact, its biggest dedicated sneaker auction since July, 2019, just launched yesterday with “Scarce Air,” a partnership with Chicago sneaker dealers English Sole that features “50 of the rarest & most coveted Nikes ever produced.” The auction will run online until March 29. 

In Wachter’s eyes, the Sotheby’s sneaker program officially launched in May, 2020, when Michael Jordan’s 1985 “Game Worn Autographed Nike Air Jordan 1s” sold in a Sotheby’s online auction for $560,000. This became a new record in sneaker sales not just for the auction house but for the world. The previous world auction record for sneakers was also held by Sotheby’s: in July of 2019, they sold the Nike 1972 Nike Waffle Racing Flat ‘Moon Shoe’ for $437,500. But by surpassing that marker, it became even more clear to the company something was happening in the market that needed more specific attention. “I think the whole company took a step back and said, ‘whoa, wait a minute, there’s a market here.’ We had bidders from all over the world, internationally, at many different levels,” says Wachter, who is a lifelong sneakerhead himself — he applied to his MBA at NYU-Stern with a custom pair of Air Force Ones he had made with a resume of his life on them. 

“I think there’s a lot of shock value in the sneaker market in general and what it’s doing, but I would say in many ways it’s an extension of a new collecting category,” Wachter says. “New” is of course relative: people have been collecting sneakers for eons, but Sotheby’s has now entered the space in a more official way, so the category is fresher to the auction house. “The same way that there are people out there who want to collect whiskeys and wines, and they might drink them but they might not; they might save them. You might also wear a pair of Nikes, you might save it.” 

Entourage Air Force 1's
Entourage Air Force 1’s

The way Wachter sees it, it’s a level of collecting akin to whiskeys or wines, yes, but also stamps or comic books. “If we think about stamps or comic books, stamps are not … unexpected, but they were a way that people received information and had a cultural importance. If you think about comic books, it’s the same thing,” he says. “As people came into wealth and came into money, these were the cultural assets that they prized and cared about. I think the exact same thing is happening with sneakers.” At Sotheby’s, those are sneakers of a certain kind, of course. 

Sotheby’s separates their sneakers, which are a part of the Luxury Accessories and Collectibles department, for their Buy Now program and for auction. Their “Buy Now” offerings, Wachter says, are generally more readily available in the market, though some are still quite unique — a $25,000 pair of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-autographed pair of adidas Superstars, for example; Nike Moon Shoes ($100,000); or misprinted “Night of Mischief” Nike Dunk SB Lows ($1,000). For the most part, though, the shoes in the Buy Now category, Wachter says, are type-related, easily transactable items in a comparatively lower price range (as low as $500, though many are in the $2,000-$5,000 range with some notable exceptions) than those at auction. Nike features heavily in both auctions and Buy Now, as there’s a large collecting base for the shoes, but other brands also appear throughout.

The shoes at auction are, like the title “Scarce Air” would imply, decidedly more rare. “I look at auction as a place where we put up the very unique items that would be very difficult to source anywhere else,” Wachters says. “So people bring to us shoes that are immensely difficult to find, even on the secondary market.” For “Scarce Air,” this includes the Nike Air Force 1 Entourage x Undefeated x Fukijama Gold, the sneakers that actor Jerry Ferrara’s character Turtle coveted and chased throughout the course of a whole episode of HBO’s Entourage. For those unaware, Fukijama’s a fictional artist created for the show, but that doesn’t stop this pair from being highly coveted off the air as well. With “laser-etched design on metallic gold leather panels and black leather Nike Swooshes,” whose “tongue and heel feature special UNDFTD graphics,” the shoe is estimated at $30,000-$40,000 (there’s currently a bid for them at $30,000). Another among the “Scarce Air” lots is a sample pair of mismatched Nike Air Yeezy 2s autographed by Kanye West, estimated between $40,000-$60,000 with a starting bid of $35,000 (there are no bids currently). There’s also the StockX version of the Nike Air Jordan IV Retro Eminem ‘ENCORE.’ The shoe was originally released in 2005 to celebrate the rapper’s album of the same name and re-released exclusively with StockX in 2017 in time for his album Revival — only 23 pairs were made that time, making it even more difficult to find than the 2005 version. The pair is estimated at $30,000-$35,000, with one current bid at $28,000. Interestingly, English Sole initially approached Wachter on Instagram — “They had a fantastic selection and their team is super knowledgeable,” he says — and Wachter is open to partnerships with more entrepreneurs in the field as well. 

Auctions like this at Sotheby’s are not without their effects on the market. Wachter sees sales at Sotheby’s directly impacting other marketplaces, increasing the prices of goods. According to DJ and Brand Director Sean Mc, previously of Reebok and And1, a sneaker department at an auction house both “adds prestige to the top end of the market” and “further legitimizes sneakers as an asset class like fine art,” but also benefits larger platforms or corporations even though “Black athletes and Black culture made these shoes iconic.” Not to mention, the shoes, especially those sprung from all-important and ever-present collabs, are made in quantities so small they become not just more coveted but harder to find: their audience has thereby become more connected and wealthier than ever before. “At the peak of [Michael Jordan’s] prime on court, you could walk into any major sneaker store and buy the latest at retail price for weeks after they’ve released,” Mc says. “Now you have to enter a raffle at 9am on Saturdays for a CHANCE to purchase. If you miss out, you either have to pay three to five times retail price, get fakes or go without.” 

But ultimately the success of an auction, of a pair of sneakers, or both, is about where people place value. “I think more broadly what is really going is that these items have cultural importance,” Wachter says. “People who grew up in that generation come into money and earn money, you see the rise and the growth of this market.” So maybe those mismatched Yeezy 2s really are for you. But if they aren’t, the white-on-white Air Force 1s are always a classic, too.

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