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The Rocket Project's Short Fuse: Tom Sachs is in Hot Water

The Rocket Project's Short Fuse: Tom Sachs is in Hot Water
March 24, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

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From the outside looking in, Tom Sachs seemed to be the prototypical contemporary artist for a new, younger generation of affluent collectors. Yes, his art found its way to the auction block at Christie's and Sotheby's, but there are countless artists for whom that's the case. How many artists, though, are popular collaborators with Nike and have a model rocket NFT project that did over $35 million in sales?

Sachs often focuses on transforming iconic, capitalistic objects and brands, asking questions around consumerism, materialism, and commodification. His top auction sale, achieved just last May, was the $302,000 sale of "Tiffany Value Meal," a sculpture of a McDonalds value meal, painted Tiffany blue and emblazoned with the Tiffany & Co logo.

His "Mars Yard" sneakers, released in limited quantities with Nike, are perhaps some of the most desirable of the last decade. The Mars Yard 1.0 sells for close to $10,000 on the rare occasion it's available, while the 2.0 often finds itself in similar (though slightly lower) territory. Those sneakers separated themselves from the pack as the market tide rose in recent years. In fact, back in 2017, you could've bought a pair of the Mars Yard 2.0 for under $1,000, sometimes even as low as $600.

The success of those releases ultimately led to another collaboration on the NikeCraft General Purpose Shoe, this one meant to be an everyday shoe for a less limited audience.  The first of the three colorways released so far dropped back in June, but already, almost 37,000 pairs of the three releases have changed hands on StockX, amounting to $8.5 million in total volume.

So, what's the problem?Well, it appears Tom Sachs is the problem.

According to a piece from New York Magazine's Curbed last week, the culture at the artist's studio is cultish and scary. Sachs is alleged to fly off the handle at employees, make demeaning comments, and treat female colleagues in a way that make them feel uncomfortable (at best). The studio environment is said to be psychologically taxing, leading to significant churn.  We won't exhaustively rehash the details here, but they're all in the story.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the studio denied most of what was told to New York. But it got worse. In the aftermath of the Curbed piece, Complex reported that the box for the Mars Yard 2.0 originally included the phrase "work like a slave," before Nike ultimately had it removed late in the release process.  Then, ArtNet detailed allegations from former employees of meager pay and "dehumanizing" work.

Maybe the idea of a mercurial, even hostile artist is nothing particularly new. But in this era and in this social climate, where tolerance and acceptance of such behavior is lower than its ever been, the consequences could be meaningful, highlighting the reputational risk associated with investing in works and products linked to living artists and public figures.

Nike has stated that it is "deeply concerned by the very serious allegations." These allegations come at a challenging time for the company, which is also navigating the fallout from rising star Ja Morant's latest exploits.

Undoubtedly, there are (or were) more General Purpose Shoes in the works. In the last week, there has been mild price pressure on the existing pairs, though for the moment it appears negligible. That's not necessarily a shock - recall that initial price activity in the wake of Kanye West's worst moments and the subsequent termination of his Adidas partnership was also subdued and even positive in many cases.

On the other hand, the floor price for Tom Sachs Rocket Factory Rockets, from the artist's NFT project, is down 69% since March 13th. The number of sales was up 2,100% in the 7 days following the Curbed article, indicating there may have been a quicker reaction and march for the exits in the NFT world than in sneakers. Activity in general, though, is largely quieter now that most (89%) of the physical rockets associated with the NFTs have already launched.

Maybe a few articles won't be enough to irreparably damage Sachs's legacy, but if they prove to be smoke pluming from a much larger fire, the star of a figure operating uniquely at the intersection of art and streetwear should dim in a hurry.

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