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Sotheby's sneaks up on younger market via sneaker sales
A sneaker part of a pair of basketball legend Michael Jordan's famous Air Jordans from his rookie season is seen on April 28, 2021 in Geneva during a preview of sale by auction house Sotheby’s intitled «Gamers Only». Jordan's sneakers are estimated to sell for 100,000 to 150,000 Swiss francs ($109,500-$164,000; 90,500-136,000 euros), but could go much higher following the buzz created by a new world record this week. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP.

by Robin Millard

GENEVA (AFP).- Sotheby's is staging its first international dedicated sneaker sale, seeing the boom in a formerly niche market as a way to attract younger clients into the world of auctions.

Fine art, jewellery and antiques might be the more traditional stock in auction house trade, complete with a packed room and auctioneer banging a wooden gavel.

But the coronavirus pandemic has triggered a shift towards smartphone-accessible online auctions.

Sotheby's says it has also noticed that younger people are being drawn to auctions by design classics with a back story.

On Monday, the auction house sold a pair of Nike Air Yeezy 1s worn by rapper Kanye West for $1.8 million (1.5 million euros) -- triple the previous record for sneakers.

That sale is being followed by "Gamers Only" -- Sotheby's debut global dedicated sneaker auction, conducted entirely online.

It features 13 pairs of match-worn basketball shoes from some of the NBA's greatest athletes, including Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The sale runs until 1400 GMT on May 12.

Josh Pullan, managing director of Sotheby's global luxury division, said that aged between 20 and 40, the client profile for sneaker sales was generally younger than in regular auctions.

"What's also really interesting is that more than 50 percent of the buyers and bidders are new to Sotheby's, so we're seeing this as a great way to bring in new clients," he told AFP.

Yeezy does it

Pullan said that the auction house made a major shift towards digital sales last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic -- "and there's no going back", he said.

However, the live physical auctions will remain for showpiece sales events.

The record price for sneakers has been broken several times recently, as what was seen as a niche interest 10 years ago is now one of the fastest-growing markets, attracting attention from the general public as well as leading collectors.

The Nike Air Yeezy 1s, worn by West during the 2008 Grammy Awards, fetched an amount that shattered the previous sneakers auction record of $615,000 set in August last year.

That sum, achieved by auctioneers Christie's, was for the Nike Air Jordan 1 pair worn by Michael Jordan when he famously shattered the backboard in a 1985 match.

"The sneakers category is really exploding," Pullan said.

"We're seeing that collectors who are passionate about a category and understand design and a story attached to those items are prepared to chase and purchase those items," he said.

"This is a market that we see growing as people's understanding and appreciation continues to grow. That means more people in the space, more competition and more excitement."

Jordans and jewels

The "Gamers Only" collection is on show at the Bucherer boutique in Geneva alongside standout jewels, watches and handbags from Sotheby's Luxury Week of sales in the Swiss city.

The star sneakers are a pair of Jordan's famous Nike Air Jordan 1s.

They are estimated to fetch between $110,000 and $164,000 but could go for much higher following the buzz around the Yeezy world record.

Nike Air Jordan 1s "not only changed basketball footwear forever but are also considered foundational to the development of sneaker culture", Sotheby's said.

The pair on sale -- in the Chicago Bulls' red, white and black -- were worn by Jordan during his stellar 1984-1985 debut season.

Jordan, now 58, went on to become a six-time NBA champion and is widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time.

"The Air Jordan 1s are one of the grails," said Pullan.

"There's a bit of wear on the toe and around the heels and that gives us a feeling for what happened in the game when they were worn," he added.

"This pair is from someone who knew Michael Jordan personally, so they really come with that impeccable provenance."

The sale also includes sneakers worn by NBA greats Stephen Curry, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett, Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins, Allen Iverson, Moses Malone and Isiah Thomas.

© Agence France-Presse

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