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Auction Action: REA Spring 2024 Preview - Take Flight with the Air Ship

Auction Action: REA Spring 2024 Preview - Take Flight with the Air Ship
April 17, 2024
Altan Insights

REA’s first major auction event of 2024, the Spring 2024 auction, closes this Sunday, offering a formidable assortment of vintage and modern card grails, as well as some unique memorabilia pieces. In partnership with REA, we’ll be previewing the action throughout the week to highlight some eye-catching lots with insightful market context. If you missed Part 1, we covered some incredible vintage baseball grails. Read it here. Today, we resume our series, this time focusing on a game-worn primer before some major sneakers and jerseys come to the block.

The market for game-worn and game-used memorabilia has grown significantly over the past few years. Consider these statistics from our reports on the Sports Collectibles Market:

  • The number of six-figure game-used sales at auction increased by 46% in 2022 and then a further 4% in 2023. 2023’s total was 51% higher than 2021’s.
  • The top 50 game-used sales at auction produced a total in 2022 that was 105% higher than it was in 2021. 2023 produced a further 4% increase from 2022, improving on 2021’s total by 115%.

These statistics are impressive, but they become more remarkable when you consider that sports cards (particularly modern cards) have decreased dramatically in both values and sales volumes over the same period. While the category that led the sports collectibles boom in late 2020 and late 2021 has succumbed to market weakness, the high end of the game-used market has taken to new heights with startling regularity, producing auction results that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Eight of the top ten sports memorabilia auction sales of all time have come in 2022 and 2023. The record books have quite literally been rewritten and then rewritten again.

One of the earlier signals of a surge in game-used interest came in October 2021, as the Michael Jordan nostalgia wave rolled through Sotheby’s, bringing with it the Nike Air Ships believed to be his earliest known sneakers worn in the NBA regular season. Before his debut signature sneaker, the Air Jordan 1, was ready for primetime, Jordan wore the Air Ship in his earliest days as a Chicago Bull. This particular pair dated to his fifth game, with provenance to a Denver Nuggets ball boy. The signed pair was estimated to sell for $1,000,000 to $1,500,000, and the result didn’t disappoint. The sneakers sold for $1,472,000, establishing a record at the time for any pair of sneakers sold at auction. 

To put the result in context, it more than doubled the prior record of $615,000, held jointly by two pairs of Jordan-worn Air Jordan 1s. While the appearance of Air Jordan 1s at auction is relatively common, with more than a few available at auction annually, worn Air Ships are seen much less frequently. Prior to that Sotheby’s result, we count only two appearances. 

A signed pair with ball boy provenance from a December 2nd, 1984 game against the Lakers sold for $71,554 at SCP Auctions in 2015. That pair featured “Nike Air” on the back of the shoes, a sign that they may be a slightly later and more common iteration than the $1,472,000 pair, which features only "Air" printed on the back. Still, the ~$1.4 million difference in price says much about the elevation of the market since 2015. Another pair, similar to the one sold at SCP, was included in a Christie’s event in 2020 with an estimate of $350,000 - $550,000 but ultimately did not sell, perhaps arriving just a shade too early for the game-used boom.

In what’s a bit of an oddity for such a premier pair, the record-breaking Air Ships returned to auction in September of 2023 at Goldin. Though they highlighted the Sotheby’s auction, this time they fought for the spotlight with other top lots, reaching only $624,000. While it’s a significant cut from 2021, it still would’ve been sufficient to set a sneaker record back in 2021. 

Today, the auction record for a single pair of sneakers stands at $2,238,000, set in November 2023 by a pair of Jordan 13s worn in Game 2 of the 1998 “Last Dance” NBA Finals. The record for any sneakers belongs to a collection - The Dynasty Collection - comprised of one sneaker from each of Jordan’s title-clinching performances. That collection sold for $8,032,800 earlier this year. For another piece of context on the market’s rise: in June of 2023, the sneakers worn in Michael Jordan’s famous “Flu Game” sold for $1,380,000 after selling for just $104,765 back in 2013. What a difference ten years can make.

Photo: REA

REA will test the market for those early, Jordan-worn Air Ships this weekend, as the house brings a Hobby-fresh example to the auction block. Like those before it, this signed pair has provenance to a ball boy, but this time it’s direct provenance, as the consignor was the very person to collect the sneakers from Jordan when he served as a ball boy for the Pistons. The Bulls played away to the Pistons on November 7th and December 12th of 1984, meaning Jordan wore these sneakers in either his 6th or 24th game. The 6th game directly followed the game in which he wore the $1.5 million sneakers, and since he gave that “Air” pair away after the 5th game, he possibly began wearing this “Nike Air” pair the next time he took the court. By December 12th, he had begun wearing the Air Jordan 1 on occasion, though it was not yet a permanent fixture. The sneakers are accompanied by a wealth of material from the consignor demonstrating his position as a ball boy.

As it turns out, that ball boy made a frequent habit of asking players for their sneakers. And he was often successful. Also included in the REA event are signed pairs from Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins, as well as a pair from Robert Parish. Thomas and Wilkins pairs have generally taken to low four-figure territory when they appear at auction. There’s a lot containing a further 18 pairs (17 of them signed) from a variety of players including Sidney Moncrief and Bill Cartwright. The collection is a veritable museum of 1980s basketball models, with Nike, Adidas, Converse, and even Pony all represented. 

Photo REA

The game-worn material isn’t limited to sneakers, though, as game-worn baseball material will also come to the block this weekend. A 1968 Al Kaline uniform, worn in a championship season for the Tigers, is up for sale. The uniform has provenance to Tigers scout Bob Prentice, and SGC assigns it an “Excellent” grade despite post-Kaline wear by Prentice; the “Excellent” criteria states “there can be no doubt about the attribution of the use and wear to the single player in question.” A jersey from the championship clincher in the same season with photographer provenance sold for $47,800 in 2015, and Kaline-worn material continues to reside comfortably in the same low-to-mid-five-figure range depending on provenance and authentication.

Kaline is no doubt an all-time great, boasting 18 All-Star selections, but more contemporary stars are represented in the event as well. A Chipper Jones rookie uniform features in the Spring 2024 auction. The uniform boasts heavy wear from that '95 rookie season that ultimately saw the Braves win the World Series. It's graded A10 by MEARS and inscribed by Jones, headlining an assortment of three Jones-worn jerseys in the event. REA previously sold a 2005 Jones jersey for $2,040, while a home jersey from the same 1995 season sold at Goldin this fall for $4,880. The full uniform, though, could be the most desirable of them all.

With the background out of the way, now we wait to see if game-worn lots can again inspire spirited bidding as they find new homes at REA this weekend.

Stay tuned for the next edition of our preview - on Friday, we'll take a look at some of the more fascinating card assets in the REA event, including a look .

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