In a first, Sotheby’s will auction a trove of hip-hop memorabilia in a dedicated live sale on September 15 in New York. An exhibition showcasing the sale’s various highlights will be on view from September 11 to 15 at the house’s New York headquarters.
Dating from the 1970s through the current day, 120 items ranging in media—photography, street wear, jewelry, and publications—will go on offer in September. Among the top lots is a prop crown worn by Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., in a photoshoot for the cover of Rap Pages Magazine in 1997 just three days before his death in Los Angeles. The crown, which has been in the possession of the Brooklyn-based photographer Barron Claiborne, who captured the now famous image during the “K.O.N.Y. (King of New York)” portrait session, is expected to fetch between $200,000 and $300,000.
In a statement, Claiborne said, “With the tragic events that unfolded just days after the photoshoot, this image of a crowned Notorious B.I.G. became much more than a portrait—the image transformed Biggie Smalls into an aristocratic or saint like figure, forever immortalized as not only the King of New York, but a king of Hip Hop music.”
Another leading lot is an archive of 22 intimate letters written by the teenage Tupac Shakur, lending insight into his early relationships and familial life estimated at $60,000 to $80,000. The market for paraphernalia such as these letters is nascent and the bulk of items on offer have been consigned by the artists represented in the sale or their estates, according to Sotheby’s.
Along with its recent sports-themed sale series, Sotheby’s is looking to capitalize on untapped collecting categories outside the traditional fine art and luxury segments. “Since its birth in the Bronx in the 1970s, Hip Hop has become a global cultural force, whose massive influence continues to shape all realms of culture: music, fashion, design, art, film, social attitudes, language, and more,” Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist in Sotheby’s books & manuscripts department, the auction’s organizer, in a statement. “This sale is a celebration of the origins and early eras of that influence.”
Sotheby’s tapped music-industry executive Monica Lynch, who worked at the rap label and streetwear company Tommy Boy Records during the 1980s and ’80s, to help execute the auction. Lynch was instrumental in developing the early careers of formative artists like Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and Naughty by Nature, and was a key figure in the New York hiphop scene of the era. According to Hatton, Lynch specifically provided “valuable expertise and insight into the Hip Hop community,” and liaised with select artists and estates who consigned items to the auction.
Sotheby’s director of e-commerce development Brahm Wachter previously told Art Market Monitor in an interview that the house was now targeting new collectibles markets, including ones related to film, music, and fashion. The forays into pop culture have so far paid off. The first instance was Sotheby’s single-lot sale of a pair of vintage game-worn Michael Jordan Nikes that realized $560,000 in May following the airing of the TV series The Last Dance. Other rival houses seem to be watching Sotheby’s tactics. In August, a Christie’s sale moved the record price for a pair of retro Jordan sneakers to $615,000.
A portion of the Sotheby’s hip-hop sale’s proceeds will benefit the Queens Public Library Foundation in support of its Hip Hop Programs organized by music video director “Uncle” Ralph McDaniels, as well as Building Beats, a Brooklyn-based music-centered youth leadership non-profit.