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FILE PHOTO: A silhouette of a woman wearing a protective face shield and a protective face mask is seen near to a Nike logo at a shopping mall on the first day after the government eased restrictions amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 15, 2020. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/File Photo (via REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: A silhouette of a woman wearing a protective face shield and a protective face mask is seen near to a Nike logo at a shopping mall on the first day after the government eased restrictions amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 15, 2020. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/File Photo (via REUTERS)
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$2 million for T-shirts? How Supreme and Nike cracked the auction market

Elite auction houses like Sotheby’s are betting on rare sneakers and sought-after streetwear. Here, what’s earned the highest hammer prices and how to spot items that could someday be worth a bundle.

In lateDecember 2020, the venerated auction house Sotheby’s hosted an online-only sale of a pair of leather Adidas sneakers. Made in partnership with the 311-year-old porcelain-maker Meissen specifically for the auction, the shoes had been festooned with porcelain overlays and meticulously hand-painted with fanciful motifs from toe to heel, a six-month process that elevated humble sweat repositories to something approaching art. To the highest bidder, the sneakers were worth $126,000. (All proceeds went to the Brooklyn Museum.)

These extravagant Adidas shoes are among the sneakers and high-end streetwear pieces that have been infiltrating the tony auction market of late. In July 2019, Sotheby’s sold a historic set of Nike’s “Moon Shoe" waffle-soled sneakers from 1972 for a then-record-setting $437,500. A pair of game-worn Michael Jordan sneakers has since sold for more.

Much of the streetwear now on the auction block was sold via traditional retail shops just a few years earlier—with their auction-hammer prices dwarfing their original prices. Last September, a 2017 Supreme hoodie made in partnership with Louis Vuitton sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $6,048, far more than the $935 it commanded at retail. In October at Bonhams in London, a pair of 2018 Nike x Off-White Jordan 1 sneakers fetched around $2,750, an increase of 1,347% over their $190 retail price. And in November 2019, a Supreme-branded Rimowa suitcase earned roughly $6,400 at Christie’s in Hong Kong. The suitcase had hit the retail market in 2018 at $1,800.

Treating sneakers as re-sellable assets is hardly a new concept. In the early 2000s Jordan Geller, the founder of sneaker museum Shoezeum, began buying sneakers at California swap meets to resell for profit on eBay. Internet flippers like him built out a big-money market for theretofore overlooked Nikes and Adidas as well as limited-run Supreme gear. Eventually, Mr. Geller amassed a mammoth personal collection of sneakers, including the Nike Moon Shoes that he would later sell through Sotheby’s for as much as a Picasso sketch.

So how did old clothes and shoes once traded via modest eBay auctions become the celebrated focus of high-class houses? Doug Woodham, the managing partner of Art Fiduciary Advisors, an art consulting firm, noted that the sneaker-reselling site StockX, launched in 2016, convinced many potential investors that reselling sneakers could yield profits. StockX’s data-rich interface showed that even widely released Air Max shoes could sell for three times their sticker price, while rarer sneakers could bring far bigger windfalls.

Not every piece of streetwear, however, delivers a bonanza at auction. The market has lately narrowed, noted Meg Randell, the head of the designer handbags and fashion department at Bonhams in London, though even “a couple of years ago, there was a feeling that if you put anything Supreme in a sale, it is going to fly."

A recent, highly publicized Christie’s listing of all 253 Supreme “box logo" T-shirts, valued at about $2 million, has yet to sell. And even as Nike, Adidas, New Balance and the like (plus a variety of online platforms) pump out new sneakers every year, few emerge as the type of hype shoes that can entice nose-in-the-air bidders to spend big. At Bonhams’ “Pop x Culture" sale, hosted online last October, 11 of the 13 Nikes on offer failed to meet their reserve—i.e., the house’s set minimum sale price—and did not sell.

But market watchers say you can still count on certain surefire investments. Many agreed that anything collaborative can notch a huge return. Rogelio Bahena, 26, a lab administrator and big-time Supreme collector in Seattle, noted that Supreme collaborations “typically skyrocket" in value, sometimes as soon as their release day. Among his most coveted pieces are a 2016 Supreme Spalding basketball and a 2014 Supreme Everlast jump rope. Both collaborations retailed for less than $100 but similar examples sold at auction in 2018 for around $10,000 and $1,200, respectively.

More limited or truly singular items can fetch massive returns. In September, Sotheby’s offered one of only 24 pairs of Nike Dunks designed by Futura, a New York graffiti artist. It garnered $63,000. Mr. Geller of the Shoezeum focuses on game-worn basketball sneakers, which achieve one-of-a-kind status the moment a well-known player laces them up. “It’s just so cool to have in your hands," he said of one pair. “Like, wow, Charles Barkley laced this shoe up and put it on his feet and went to battle wearing this in 1993." During the peak of the Michael Jordan fever triggered by ESPN’s 2020 docuseries “The Last Dance," Mr. Geller sold a pair of game-worn Jordan 1s to an unnamed buyer for a record-breaking $560,000 through Sotheby’s.

While such gear calls for serious coin, you can buy newer or underappreciated shoes with future earning potential for far less. One guideline: When a brand releases newer designs of a given model, older designs will typically start to soar on the auction market. Mr. Geller noted that collectors started going gaga for circa 2000s Nike Dunks over the past year or so as the brand issued scads of new Dunk designs. Nike has a lot more Dunks on deck for 2021, so the value of historic Dunks will likely keep rising. Pop-culture exposure also helps: Ms. Randell of Bonhams said that a celebrity can boost the auction value of underloved sneakers simply by wearing a pair in public. Some sneaker obsessives credit the Dunk craze to rapper Travis Scott, who’s recently worn some models from the 2000s.

As for brand-new releases, Mr. Woodham of Art Fiduciary Advisors cites a piece of advice common to the traditional art market: Focus on those that seem destined to be the “most memorable" ones. Though plenty of Dunks were released last year, all around $100, the shoes already fetching four figures on the resale market are two of the most memorably madcap monstrosities: the cow-print-tinged Ben & Jerry’s collaboration “Chunky Dunky" and the teddy-bear-fuzzy Grateful Dead Dunks. In 20 years, they might be selling for six figures just like the Moon Shoe.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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