Collecting guide: 10 things to know about sneakers

Expert advice on the brands, terms, maintenance and nuances that every sneaker collector should know

The history of sneaker collecting can be traced to several distinct cultural movements. From the emergence of hip-hop in late 1970s New York to the rise of the Californian skateboard scene in the 1980s, sneakers have played a central role for those wishing to express a strong sense of style and creativity. 

In recent years, the growing power of brand names — and the iconic figures that promote them — have led these relatively modest objects, made from rubber, leather and cotton, to become icons themselves. Rising from ordinary items to pieces of art, sneakers (and the memorabilia and accessories associated with them) have sky-rocketed within the luxury collecting category. 

Sneakers appeal to collectors with a vast array of goals, from owning some of the most coveted items in sport’s history to building a collection of fashion-forward collabs from the world’s leading designers.

Below, we unpack everything collectors need to know about building and maintaining a sneaker collection. 

1. Collect what you love and continue to educate yourself 

With so many categories and price points in the space, be sure to focus on what you love. Those who collect around their passions are more likely to educate themselves extensively on their chosen categories.

Nike MAG, 2011. Size 14 US. Estimate $20,000-30,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
Nike MAG, 2011. Size 14 US. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

Shoes, for example, can be reissues of silhouettes that you may have worn growing up, which can now be purchased for a few hundred dollars. They can also be historic artefacts that were worn by one of the world’s greatest athletes during the moment that cemented their fame — and come with a multi-million-dollar price tag. 

2. Talking the talk is as important as walking the walk 

Below are some of the most important terms and phrases to know when entering the sneaker market. 

Colourway – This term refers to the specific colour combination of a sneaker. Colourways can have a wide or limited releases. 

Deadstock – Essentially, deadstock means unworn or brand new. 

Drop – Drops are hyped sneaker releases, which are usually limited by time or supply. Examples of drops can include a brand releasing a limited-edition colourway, or a one-off brand collaboration. 

Game issued – Game issued refers to items that were produced for game use but have never been worn. These items can have unique player features like commemorative patches, special embroidery or colourways and models never released to the public. These player specific features are also captured under the term Player Exclusive, Player Edition or simply PE.

Michael Jordan game-worn original 1985 Air Jordan 1 ‘Chicago’ sneakers, Nike, 1985. Size 13 and 13.5 US. Estimate $200,000-300,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
Michael Jordan game-worn original 1985 Air Jordan 1 ‘Chicago’ sneakers, Nike, 1985. Size 13 and 13.5 US. Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

Game worn – Game-worn items, such as jerseys and shoes, are items that players wore during a competitive game. These are sometimes referred to as ‘game used’. More details on game-worn sneakers can be found below. 

Grading and authentication – As a collector, it’s important to educate yourself on all grading and authentication traits. High-end collectables can be authenticated based on materials, tagging and wear. Professionals and experienced licensed providers can also provide expert opinions when signatures are present. 

Photo matched – This term applies to game-worn items only and refers to the identification of unique markings acquired during game play. These characteristics can range from imperfections, threads or stains, including those caused by grass, mud or blood. They can also be sport-specific features, such as stick marks and board burns on hockey jerseys. 

Any marking or crease created by game wear can be used to attribute a game-worn pair to a specific match-up or moment when examining the item against photographs from that game in a process called ‘photo-matching’.

Michael Jordan game-worn dual signed player exclusive Jordan VII ‘Hare’ sneakers, Nike, 1992. Size 13 US. Estimate $20,000-26,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
Michael Jordan game-worn dual signed player exclusive Jordan VII ‘Hare’ sneakers, Nike, 1992. Size 13 US. Estimate: $20,000-26,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

Player Exclusive or Player Edition (PE) – Players often have special player samples that have unique features, including embroidery or colourways, that are only available to that player. These exclusive items are not released to the public. 

Provenance – As with works of art, provenance refers to the history of a sneaker’s ownership — including how items were sourced and when they were used. Robust provenance facilitates both authentication and photo-matching. 

Retro – A retro is a sneaker model or colourway that has been re-released as a ‘throw-back’ several years after its original release.

Air Force 1 retro ‘Ekin,’ Nike, 2019. Size 10 US. Estimate $5,000-10,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
Air Force 1 retro ‘Ekin,’ Nike, 2019. Size 10 US. Estimate: $5,000-10,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

Samples – Samples are early mock-ups or releases of shoes and other items before they enter full retail production. There are several types of sneaker samples, but they are generally made from superior materials and sometimes never released, making them extremely rare and valuable. 

Sole swap – Sole swapping is a restoration process wherein a deteriorating vintage sneaker’s midsole can be restored by implanting a midsole from a new retro release. The entire process is complex and should only be undertaken by an expert. 

The decision to sole swap is a personal preference, as it can detract from the sneaker’s value since it is lacking original material. Yet, on the other hand, the shoe will display well and be able to endure more handling. 

3. Brands to know and those to look out for 

Jordan, Nike and Adidas are the biggest brands on the market due to their importance in sports and the iconic athletes that utilise their products.

Chanel x Reebok Instapump Fury, 2001. Size 9 US. Estimate $10,000-15,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
Chanel x Reebok Instapump Fury, 2001. Size 9 US. Estimate: $10,000-15,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

However, there are many other brands — such as New Balance, Reebok, Timberland and Dr Martins — where craftsmanship, build and comfort have resulted in their own cult-like followings. These brands occasionally engage in high-profile and highly sought-after collaborations. 

Having a strong overview of the space can help to refine what you wear and collect and will give you a better understanding of the industry. 

4. What about collaborations? 

Formally, collaborations are defined as an ‘alliance between two or more brands to create a specific product or service’. In recent years, collaborations have been the source of much of the hype and hysteria surrounding sneaker collecting — as well as the retail industry at large, often resulting in fun, quirky or novel customer experiences.

Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 low gold by Virgil Abloh, 2022. Size 14 US. Estiamte $15,000-20,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 low gold by Virgil Abloh, 2022. Size 14 US. Estiamte: $15,000-20,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

For luxury sneakers and streetwear, collaborations often exist between two iconic brands, like Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 by Virgil Abloh, or a brand and an influential celebrity, such as Jordan x Travis Scott. Whatever the source of the collaboration, the outcome is often rare and hard to acquire product that often increases in value. 

5. More about game-worn sneakers 

For collectors of sports memorabilia, game-worn and photo-matched items that directly relate to milestone moments are amongst the most coveted, and pricey. These objects are rooted in nostalgic value, time-honoured game play and historic meaning. However, given that some articles of clothing were worn in multiple games, the supply of top-tier game-worn items is very low. 

The authentication of these items is of the utmost importance. While photo matching is one of the best ways to authenticate a game-worn shoe or jersey, it is not the only way. If a photo match does not exist, other classifications and grades can help confirm an items value, such as game-worn with or without a signature, or with or without provenance.

Serena Williams game-worn and signed Court Flare 2 Purple by Virgin Abloh, Nike x Offwhite, 2018. Size 11.5 US. Estimate $17,000-20,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
Serena Williams game-worn and signed Court Flare 2 Purple by Virgin Abloh, Nike x Offwhite, 2018. Size 11.5 US. Estimate: $17,000-20,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

It is important to remember, that when no photo match is available, expert authentication for tagging, wear and signatures is critical. 

6. Signatures 

Signed game-worn sneakers or jerseys are not the only high-value collectible. Unworn items or samples that are signed can also be extremely valuable, especially as some signatures are very hard to acquire. 

7. To wear or not to wear 

While we would not advise wearing any game-worn items, as it can be detrimental to their value, wearing other high-value or limited-edition sneakers is a personal choice. This choice often depends on your intentions: do you plan to keep and enjoy your sneakers, or ultimately resell them as an investment? Worn sample or limited-production shoes, for example, that are usually $10,000 and up if unused can be purchased for a fraction of the price. The differentiation in price will fundamentally be determined by the availability and rarity of the item.

Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 Low Blue by Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton x Nike. Size 5.5 US. Estimate $7,000-9,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 Low Blue by Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton x Nike. Size 5.5 US. Estimate: $7,000-9,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

Ultimately, sneakers are meant to be enjoyed — whether you are displaying them in your living room or office or wearing them out. The most important thing is to do what makes you happy and have fun with your collection. 

8. How to store your sneakers 

Organisation and space are major factors to consider when storing any collection. However, since sneakers are composed of various materials, it’s important to be mindful of a few additional things. 

Store your sneakers with care. Sneakers need room to breathe, do not over-stack boxes or stuff items into confined spaces. Likewise, good ventilation and temperature-controlled spaces are always best. Moisture and direct sunlight should also be avoided at all costs.

A pair of gold oblique Cannetille B23 high-top sneakers by Peter Doig, Dior, Winter 2021. Size 43 ITEU. Estimate $5,000-7,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
A pair of gold oblique Cannetille B23 high-top sneakers by Peter Doig, Dior, Winter 2021. Size 43 IT/EU. Estimate: $5,000-7,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

If you are displaying them, be mindful of the risks, and pay close attention to the more fragile parts of the item. No matter how you chose to store your sneakers, you should inspect them regularly, and actively manage their care and storage solutions. 

9. Know which sneakers to clean and which to care for 

When it comes to sneaker collecting, the word ‘care’ is often more important than ‘clean’. The more vintage the item, the more care it will need when handling and cleaning. 

While there are plenty or products on the market for cleaning sneakers, sometimes just a little soap and water is all it takes. However, be mindful when cleaning as colours can fade and materials can begin to deteriorate due to over cleaning.

Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 Mid Graffiti by Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton x Nike, 2022. Size 9 US. Estimate $5,000-10,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christies online
Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 Mid Graffiti by Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton x Nike, 2022. Size 9 US. Estimate: $5,000-10,000. Offered in The Greats from 29 November-6 December at Christie's online

When it comes to game-worn sneakers, cleaning should be avoided, since it will effectively remove what makes the items special — eliminating their history and any possibility of photo-matching the pair. 

10. Get to know the community 

If you’re going to collect, have fun with it. Getting involved in the community will make the experience even more rewarding. 

Knowing other collectors — big and small — can be an extremely positive experience. Collectors are generally happy to share their knowledge with like-minded individuals, and can even open opportunities for trades, deals or collaborations. 

Understanding which investment companies, fractional companies and speculators are in the market can also give you a good feel for prices and trends.