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Sneakers: from courts to collections

A pair of Converse Magic basketball sneakers, game-worn and signed by Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, realized $6,000 + buyer’s premium in November 2019 at Julien’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Julien’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Sneaker culture owes much to Michael Jordan and hip hop music. While hip hop gave sneakers valuable street cred, Jordan’s basketball prowess and his Air Jordan sneaker line, which debuted in 1985, took functional and stylish footwear to new heights, inspiring legions of collectors.

Sneakerheads, those who collect, trade or hoard sneakers, often have their own favorite brands – be they Nike, Reebok, Yeezy or Adidas; or old-school staples like Converse All Stars and Keds. The sneaker market is so diverse that there is literally a pair of sneakers for everyone. Sneakers are hot collectibles, with sneakerheads willing to shell out hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for vintage or new sneakers produced in low numbers.

Dr. Frank C. Richardson, known in the sneaker world as Khalli Vegas, has long been a sneakerhead and was buying them years before that term was coined. “Sneakers have always been a way to transport myself to places near and far both in the figurative and literal sense. I have a personal collection of wearable vintage sneakers that date back to the mid-’70s. I consider myself a hoarder more than a collector, as my goal is to wear every pair I have purchased.”

One of Khalli Vegas’ many vintage sneakers is this pair of shoes by Sergio Tacchini, a sportswear brand founded by and named for the former Italian tennis star. Photo courtesy of Khalli Vegas

Wearability, which differs from those who solely collect for the purpose of buying/trading or displaying, has long guided Richardson’s collecting vision, along with achieving diversity in his collection. “I have over 700 pairs with over 75 brands. Diversity was the key in my early purchasing decision and a lot of now-defunct brands offered a good balance in the marketplace,” he said.

He has bought everything type of sneaker produced by Nike and New Balance, and especially likes ’70s and ’80s high tops. Most of his sneakers have been with him for decades, and some are only worn once every few years. Among his favorites are the Nike Air Force 1, the Adidas Rivalry Hi (Ewing) and Converse Dr Js.

A pair of autographed and game-worn Jordan VI sneakers by Michael Jordan during the 1991 Championship Playoff Series game earned $10,000 in February 2016 at Philip Weiss Auctions. Photo courtesy of Philip Weiss Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

While many vintage purchases are made online today, there remains a place where sneakerheads can gather for trading and buying — Sneaker Con, which started in New York in 2009 and has hosted events for over a million sneakerheads in more than 40 cities worldwide.

Proving just how far sneakers have come in pop culture, the shoes are now even a darling of museums such as at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, which mounted a traveling exhibition in 2013, “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture.” The exhibit posited the sneaker not only as a cultural icon but also a political symbol with an ever-changing dialogue between those who make sneakers and those who wear them. “Museum visitors had the opportunity to explore the historical beginnings of the sneaker from its emergence in the 19th century to becoming one of the most democratic forms of footwear in the 20th century to its current position as status symbol and icon of urban culture,” the museum noted of the exhibit, which featured 120+ pairs of sneakers.

Ringo Starr’s Adidas sneakers, with custom embroidered star design in red, white and black, went for $2,250 + buyer’s premium in November 2017 at Julien’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Julien’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A recent article on Sneakers News featured interviews with four collectors of Nikes. “Since Nike has a far-reaching assortment of models for various sports and styles with everything from mainstream genres like basketball and running to more obscure sub-brands like Nike ACG, collectors can get as general or specific as they want,” the article noted. Many collectors are drawn to renowned specialty categories like Air Jordans, LeBrons and Air Maxes.

Bobbito Garcia, author of Where’d You Get Those? NYC’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987, has said sneaker culture has changed much from the early days. Buyers today have infinitely more choices than in the 1970s when there were only a few colors and most sneaker brands issued new models only once a year. Now, brands drop new models nearly every week.

This pair of game-worn Nike Air Jordans, circa 1990, gifted by Michael Jordan to Whitney Houston, sold for $16,000 + buyer’s premium in June 2016 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

While basketball sneakers often bring the highest prices, led by Michael Jordan, whose branded sneakers dominate the top 10 prices on LiveAuctioneers, sneakers designed for soccer, skateboarding and other sports are also popular with collectors. For investment-grade collectors, sneakers associated with a particular athlete, and those worn in important games or tournaments, are especially desirable. And whether buying to wear or buying to buy, average collectors have plenty from which to choose. The coolest thing about sneakers, perhaps, is that the varieties are endless, so you’re sure to find a pair that reflects your own personal style and makes you feel like a superstar.