Demand for rare designs of iconic sneakers is raising prices to sky-high heights
Over the past two years, auction prices for particularly rare pairs of sneakers have risen. As with comics and baseball cards, the most sought after items now are collectibles that sell for millions.
Pre-production sample of Nike’s first shoe for former 1985 NBA basketball star Michael Jordan. sold at auction for $ 560,000 in 2020 is about four times the mark and the new record of sneakers. Since then, the record has been broken twice – the last time last year when another very rare pair was sold: a prototype Nike Air Yeezy 1, worn by rapper Kanye West on stage at the 2008 Grammy Awards. They went for $ 1.8 million.
What is behind this price increase? Bram Wachter, head of the streetwear and modern collectibles department at Sotheby’s auction house, who conducted the two sales, says the amounts are in line with the maturing new generation of buyers. For them, sneakers are as powerful a cultural symbol as baseball cards in the early 1990s, when prices for particularly scarce specimens, such as the T206 Honus Wagner, skyrocketed (one example last year brought in $ 6.6 million) .
“If you’re a kid, you go to the grocery store and buy a comic for 5 cents, and then 30 years later you’ve achieved tremendous success in your business career and want to feel nostalgic about what’s important to you?” Wachter asks. “It could be Superman. “Question number one. With sneakers, you have a lot of people who grew up in the 1980s and remember how Michael Jordan walked the court. As more and more of this generation becomes successful, it’s the cultural values they value.”
While to some nearly $ 2 million for a pair of old shoes may seem like an absurd price, rare sneakers have two ingredients needed to turn a consumer product into a valuable collector’s item: cultural value and scarcity. The Holy Grail of collecting sneakers – species that make up six or seven figures – are models that exist in only a few handfuls or are single examples. These prototypes and samples are usually decades old, and finding them in good condition is extremely difficult. “Two years ago, you could rarely see a six-figure pair of sneakers,” says Wachter. “Now it’s happening all the time – all over the world, probably every couple of weeks.”
The Air Yeezy record prototype belonged to Ryan Chang, a collector from Brooklyn who runs the consulting company Applied Arts, which advises investors on alternative assets such as sneakers, sports cards and irreplaceable tokens. He says the deal Air Yeezy and others have brought him new business from customers who are not necessarily fans of sneakers, but see the opportunity for investment.
“Many of them have no experience with sneakers – they can just own sneakers to wear when running in the morning,” says Chang. “They are experienced investors. They are a combination of fund managers, private offices and other successful people who have been far-sighted in the past, who have been able to take advantage of financial opportunities many times throughout their careers, and they see the following in this. “
He says investors are coming to him to diversify their portfolios by redistributing a small portion of them in collectibles. This can have a disproportionate impact on the sneaker market. “I can’t really find enough things to buy for the money people want to deploy,” Chang says.
While the sneaker market is currently hot, prices are driven largely by shared beliefs about cultural value, making them vulnerable to recession if sentiment changes. Collectibles can fall in price, as in the case of Beanie Babies – soft toys that cost thousands of dollars in the 1990s. Collectible sneakers also entails practical costs – secure storage, authentication, insurance, shipping, cleaning and recovery – which is not the case with the acquisition of shares in a company like Nike or Adidas.
However, there are no signs that the popularity of sneakers is fading. In February, at Sotheby’s auction of Nike and Louis Vuitton, designed by Virgil Ablo – 200 pairs in the classic silhouette of Air Force 1 of this sportswear brand, total sales were $ 25.3 million, each pair received at least $ 100,000 . The sale came shortly after the sudden death of Ablo, Louis Vuitton’s creative menswear director and frequent Nike employee, who had a huge impact on sneakers as an object of desire and rising value. “The most interesting thing was the depth of the market,” says Wachter. “Many lots had 30, 40, 50 bids.”
Most buyers were under the age of 40, suggesting that the popularity of sneakers is likely to continue. “You see a whole generation whose interest in investing and alternative assets is evolving,” says Harry Taniel, general manager of sneakers at the eBay online auction, where a pair of sneakers is sold every four seconds. “We have a lot of people who are still in high school running a business income from sneakers. While the older generation may have only seen the stock market [or] the art market as a way to invest, you already see a whole generation of young people seeing it in sneakers ”.
As for the highest echelons of the market, people like Chang – both enthusiasts and investors – are always looking for the next rare couple. “There’s actually a 1984 Jordan prototype,” he notes. “Few people knew that Air Jordan 1 was not a 1985 release – it started production in 1984 under the name Black Toe. There’s a prototype. I would consider it an extremely valuable shoe. “
This article is part of FT Wealtha section that provides in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, and alternative and influential investments