This week, Sotheby’s put up eight rare works for sale as part of an online auction. While estimated price points ranging up to the high five figures for objects designed by notable artists may not stand out amid the famous auction house’s offerings, the particular medium might: Nike sneakers.
Titled “Cult Canvas,” it’s the first Sotheby’s auction dedicated solely to Nike’s rise in sneaker culture through eight rare and historical pairs of Nike Dunks. Pulling together sneakers designed by everyone from famous New York street artist Futura to toy designers like Michael Lau and notable French expressionist painter Bernard Buffet, this selection of ultrarare footwear artifacts curated by Applied Arts founder Ryan Chang celebrates sneakers with one foot in the worlds of both street fashion and fine art.
“We realized that this is a new form of art that people are really interested in and tuned in and every time a new release comes out, people are excited about it,” says Sotheby’s director of e-commerce development, Brahm Wachter. “We felt that our collecting base would be interested in these items and that this was a really unique opportunity to highlight the art that many of these creators have made over the years.”
Though these Nike Dunks might be new to Sotheby’s, the shoes on display here have been coveted by “sneakerheads,” members of a subculture that’s fascinated Jeff Goldblum and inspired a new Netflix series, for years. Fans of limited-run Nikes routinely line up for hours or even days to get their hands on rare releases, sometimes flipping them for thousands on secondary marketplaces like Stockx and Grailed.
This particular collection of shoes chronicles Nike’s evolution as a creative force and the rise of sneaker culture while highlighting the work of notable visual artists, including some like Futura 2000 and Bernard Buffet, whose more “traditional” works Sotheby’s has sold in the past.
“[Chang] has a really robust collection that’s very broad,” Wachter notes. “Each of these items represent moments in which Nike was really creative, in which they broke a barrier, in which they asked an artist to create something for them.”
For example, the inclusion of Jeff Staple’s 2005 NYC Pigeon Nike Dunk Low Pro SB commemorates a moment that Wachter describes as “the birth of sneaker culture as we know it today.” Back when it came out in 2005, Staple’s Nike collaboration was so desired that it caused a small riot on the Lower East Side that culminated in the arrest of 20 sneakerheads and a front-page New York Post story.
While Nike made 150 pairs of the “NYC Pigeon,” other Cult Canvas items are even rarer. The auction includes an unreleased test pair of Dunk SB Lows created by Japanese illustrator Katsuya Terada, commissioned by Nike’s then CEO for inclusion in 2003’s White Dunk Exhibition. Only 24 pairs of the “For Love or Money” Dunk High Pro SBs designed by Futura, a New York contemporary of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, are known to exist.
But perhaps no pair in the auction merges Sotheby’s fine art pedigree with sneaker culture like Cult Canvas’ test pair of the “Paris” Nike Dunk Low Pro SB. Integrating elements of works by anti-abstract artist Bernard Buffet (whose 1968 painting Clown sold for $939,500 through Sotheby’s last year), this particular test pair integrates the artist’s signature clown and ballerina motifs. The 200 pairs of the “Paris” Dunk sold to the public are already objects of fascination, but the unique iconography on this particularly well-preserved sample pair make them an even rarer find.
While Sotheby’s appraises the value of those Bernard Buffet “Paris” Dunks (the show’s most expensive) between $70,000 and $80,000, recent auction trends suggest the final sales price could reach the six figures. Earlier this month, the first-ever Hip Hop–focused auction fetched $2.1 million, far exceeding the high end of its $1.7 million estimate. Back in June, a single-lot online auction for a pair of Michael Jordan’s game-worn, autographed Nike Air Jordan 1s commanded $560,000, shattering the $100,000-$150,000 estimate.
Much like the Hip Hop auction, where roughly one in four participants were first-time Sotheby’s bidders, Cult Canvas also has the potential to further introduce the esteemed auction house to a new audience. Wachter notes that the first day of the auction generated over 90 bids, 60% of which were placed by clients new to Sotheby’s. Overall, Cult Canvas has the potential to introduce both sneakerheads to Sotheby’s, and more traditional art collectors to a new medium.
We’ll have to wait until September 30th to see what kind of winning bids the lots comprising Cult Canvas ultimately command. But the mere presence of a pair of What the Dunks on Sotheby’s website is a sign that sneaker culture and the world of design are more closely linked than ever before. Perhaps just as much as the price of the winning bid, whether these items end up on display in the winning bidder’s home or on their feet will go a long way toward defining the marketplace for artful sneakers.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest