Sotheby’s Inaugural Hip-Hop Auction Redefines Luxury for the Chinese Cultural Consumer

Sotheby’s is chalking up its street cred. On September 15, the auction house will hold its inaugural hip-hop auction, carrying more than 120 lots comprising artworks, fashion pieces, photography, and unique artifacts. The selection documents the birth and cultural impact of the hip-hop movement. Besides being a tribute to hip-hop’s staying power, the auction further marks Sotheby’s expanding presence within the pop and street culture space, following its sneaker auctions in July last year and this year.

Barron Claiborne’s portrait of Notorious B.I.G. and the plastic prop pictured lead Sotheby’s inaugural hip hop auction on September 15. Photo: Sotheby’s.

Leading the sale is Notorious B.I.G.’s “King of New York” Crown, a prop “Biggie” donned for a now-iconic photograph shot by Barron Claiborne in 1997, days before the rapper’s untimely death. It joins a host of historic and vintage items like Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” jackets and Fab 5 Freddy’s gold MTV ring, but also, more recent pieces that illustrate hip-hop’s modern-day convergence with contemporary art, streetwear, and luxury fashion. 

Notably, streetwear giant Supreme’s world-shaking 2017 collaboration with Louis Vuitton is represented by a Monogram Malle Courrier 90 Trunk, a Boite Skateboard Trunk, and a hoodie—all bearing the logos of both brands. The lots also feature limited edition Daniel Arsham artworks, including his collaboration with Nas, which produced an eroded cassette sculpture of the rapper’s 2019 record, The Lost Tapes II.

The Daniel Arsham x Nas “Lost Tapes 2 Crystal Eroded Cassette,” which was produced in 2019 in a limited edition of 20 pieces. Photo: Sotheby’s.

The inclusion of names like Supreme and Arsham is bound to draw and inspire a young, savvy group of collectors: the Chinese cultural consumer. Empowered by discretionary incomes and sophisticated tastes, these millennial buyers approach collecting with a cultural consciousness and a distinct concept of luxury. For these consumers, a personal collection should be both luxury and individual, where fine art and watches sit comfortably alongside a much-hyped Supreme or Off-White collaboration.

With new luxury serving as a cornerstone for these consumers, auction houses have been rushing to address their demands. Earlier this year, Phillips Asia launched its first-ever cross-category auction, where old-school luxury — represented by brands like Rolex and Cartier — met contemporary and pop art created by the likes of KAWS, Jeff Koons, and Arsham. Phillips’ currently ongoing sale, Intersect, was curated in that same spirit.

Michael Jordan’s game-worn Nike Air Ships, which were modified specifically for the athlete, recently went under the hammer at Christie’s “Original Air” sale. Photo: Christie’s.

Christie’s, too, has been diversifying its offerings into streetwear territory. In July, it sold a pair of Nike Air Ship sneakers, game-worn by Michael Jordan, for a record-breaking $615,000. And like Sotheby’s, the auctioneer has spent the past few years growing its footprint in the Chinese market, with China’s new collectors forming a significant part of its business strategy. In a post-pandemic landscape, as the West reels from the economic fallout of COVID-19, it won’t be surprising as this young and enthusiastic base continues to be tapped for luxury spending.

Sotheby’s latest auction is further proof that the cool of pop and street culture represents new affluence. For Chinese millennial consumers, there’s social currency to be mined from American culture. Objects that possess a rich pop cultural history — like, say, a 1983 12” pressing of Rammellzee vs. K-Rob’s “Beat Bop,” with a sleeve designed by Jean-Michel Basquiat (now also on view at the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Writing The Future” exhibition) — don’t just make for singular additions to a personal collection, but also boost its owner’s social capital.

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