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Why Sotheby’s first fancy sneaker auction makes sense — and why it doesn’t

The famed auction house is selling 100 pairs of hypebeast-y sneakers, some for tens of thousands of dollars.

A pair of sneakers inside a lighted glass case.
Sotheby’s is currently auctioning “a selection of items that have attained ‘grail’ status, the rarest of rare.” 
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

On the seventh floor of Sotheby’s New York gallery, which has been located on the moneyed Upper East Side since 1982 — though the famous British American luxury goods and art auction house has existed in some form since 1744 — you can look at a pair of limited-edition Air Jordan 4 sneakers co-designed by Eminem, valued at $16,000.

This is one of the lesser offerings in Sotheby’s first shoe-only auction, organized in collaboration with the downtown sneakerheads at internet-age consignment shop Stadium Goods. Much as there would be at the start of a special exhibition at an art museum, there is a broad white wall at the front of the room featuring a short typewritten explanation of what is going on, for those who have no idea how they arrived in a space of such cultural weight but would rather die than ask a question that makes them look stupid.

“Unique to Stadium Goods is the ‘Trophy Case,’ the greatest public collection of rare sneakers anywhere,” the paragraph reads in part. “A selection of items that have attained ‘grail’ status, the rarest of rare.”

That’s not exactly what grail means. From my understanding, “grail” implies a sort of impossible desirousness of an item you can’t find or afford but would, if given the option, perform the equivalent of a whole Indiana Jones movie to acquire. (In the world of beauty products, it means something else.) But if you are in a position to put a $16,000 starting bid on a pair of Nikes, this definition likely would not translate.

Sotheby’s Auctions “The Ultimate Sneaker Collection” In New York City
So far, all of the bids are on a series of Nikes designed by Virgil Abloh.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Still, though many news outlets have covered the novelty of an old-timey rich people institution dabbling in high-end sneaker culture, it’s not exactly a dramatic leap. The worlds of high fashion and streetwear are currently growing around and into each other like symbiotic vines, and have been for some time. Hypebeasts are often the subject of parody because of their transparent susceptibility to cults of personality and their tendency to spend way too much money on things that are objectively ugly or literally a prank, but, at the end of the day, it’s not like those Balenciaga sneakers are made of plastic. Cults of personality have always been core to the fashion industry. We are all buying our way to status.

Ben Jacobs, the brand director of Stadium Goods, argues that there’s “no mismatch” between Sotheby’s and sneaker culture. “I think we see a lot of crossover, with the streetwear community being very interested in fine art and luxury fashion,” he tells me. “And we see that on the flip side with a high-fashion audience being interested in streetwear.” He adds that there are sneakers on display in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

In any case, this is not Sotheby’s first foray into luxury streetwear, as the company’s Hong Kong branch auctioned off a 1,300-piece collection of nearly every Supreme item produced between 1998 and 2018 earlier this year. Those items were gathered by one man, American collector Yukio Takahashi, who told the anonymous interviewer behind the Sotheby’s blog, “Just about everything is in pristine condition (with very few exceptions including the black dog bowl that was kicked into the wall by an ex).” The Japanese designer and street fashion celebrity NIGO auctioned off dozens of pieces of his art and personal possessions through Sotheby’s this year as well.

This morning, 99 out of the 100 pairs of shoes were purchased privately for a total of $850,000 by a single collector, Miles Nadal, founder of the Canadian private equity firm Peerage Capital Group. The online auction opened last week and will stay open until July 23 for the remaining pair of shoes. It’s basically glorified eBay, and not what I imagine anyone picturing when they hear “fancy auction.” (Sotheby’s had an actual eBay page for a while, though its current online showroom launched in 2015.)

Prior to the massive sale, there had been no bidding frenzy. In fact, hardly any of the shoes had bids at all. The only shoe Nadal did not buy was a handmade pair of Nike’s “Moon Shoe,” designed by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman for runners at the 1972 Olympics, which the auction house estimates could sell for $160,000. This sounds egregious but isn’t even record-breaking — an autographed pair of Michael Jordan’s Converse sneakers from the 1984 Olympic finals sold for more than $190,000 in 2017.

Sotheby’s Auctions “The Ultimate Sneaker Collection” In New York City
One of many iterations of Travis Scott’s “Cactus Jack” Air Jordan 4.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Prior to his buy-out, there were no bids, either, on 2011 and 2016 versions of Nike’s limited-edition Back to the Future-inspired sneakers — the latter of which comes with self-lacing technology and created a memorable delirium upon its release just three years ago, if you can remember that far back, and which should supposedly sell for somewhere between $50,000 and $70,000. (Only 89 pairs were made, and the first pair was given to Michael J. Fox. Nike currently sells similar self-lacing Adapt BB basketball shoes for $320.)

There were five bids on a collection of Off-White’s “The Ten” series for Nike, with the top bid at $22,000. “Sure to go down as one of the most hyped and coveted sneakers of all time, the Off-White x Air Jordan 1 is an important piece of sneaker history,” the description promises. This is a little vague, but the cult of Off-White mastermind Virgil Abloh is undeniable. (And sometimes unpleasant.) Five pairs of Travis Scott’s “Cactus Jack” Air Jordan 4 Friends & Family collection had a suggested starting bid of $35,000. The collection also included a set of 15 pairs of Kanye West’s Yeezy Boosts, valued around $11,000.

There were no prior bids on the Eminem sneakers, of which there are apparently only 10 pairs in existence, all sold on eBay in 2015. No bids on DJ Khaled’s Air Jordan 3 “Another One” or “We The Best” sneakers, made in 2018 exclusively for DJ Khaled (size 11.5), “one of the rarest editions of the silhouette you could ever add to your collection.” No bids on Pharrell Williams’s “ultra-rare” Adidas and Chanel collaboration, sold at the Colette boutique in Paris for a brief time in 2018. The starting bid for a nearly-identical pair that were made for Karl Lagerfeld — apparently he did not want them, even though they specifically say “Karl” on the top of the right foot — was set at $26,000.

If you’re on the site already, you could just buy a Renoir painting or an Andy Warhol print. That is, probably, the issue. When I went to look at the collection in person, there was nobody in the space except for one guy about my age in a tie-dye Supreme hat and those metallic Nikes that look like topographical maps, leading his (I assume) grandmother around and pointing at shoes he recognized. He took a few videos on his phone, but he didn’t seem thrilled.

What would be the point in getting worked up? The boom of sneaker culture has a lot to do with the way it rides the line between aspirational and accessible, and these were ludicrously priced things sitting on black velvet. It does not occur to me to covet a major impressionist painting. It would not occur to me to covet $50,000 shoes in a glass box.

Update: Updated July 17th 10:25 AM to reflect that most of the shoes were bought by businessman Miles Nadal.

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