Perhaps the never-ending Jordan vs. LeBron GOAT debate will ultimately be decided by an auction house gavel.
Friday at Sotheby’s, the world’s most famous auction house will auction off a series of items called “The One”. Featuring artifacts and works of art spanning centuries across the globe, what could be the most treasured piece in the collection comes from very modern American sport.
Up for grabs will be the jersey worn by basketball superstar LeBron James in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, when he scored 37 points to lead the Miami Heat past the San Antonio Spurs to theirs, and his, second straight title.
The jersey, which has an entire room dedicated to it on the second floor at Sotheby’s in Manhattan, is expected to fetch between $3 million and $5 million by the time the gavel strikes.
That range puts it in striking distance of the largest sports memorabilia auction pull in Sotheby’s history, a Chicago Bulls No. 23 jersey worn by Michael Jordan in Game 1 of the 1998 NBA Finals, his last with the Bulls, that garnered $10.1 million.
“It’s expected to achieve between $3 million to $5 million which really puts it in rarefied air for sports collectibles; there’s only a few that have really hit that,” said Brahm Wachter, VP of streetwear and modern collectibles at Sotheby’s. “LeBron is now on the precipice of breaking the scoring record for any athlete to have played in the NBA and obviously, this is as important as it gets in terms of history.”
The room encasing James’ 2013 jersey in a glass case is surrounded with walls full of stats, quotes and a timeline of the final minute of the Game 7 win for the Heat when James hit a 19-foot jumper with 27 seconds to go to give the Heat a 4-point lead, and hit three free throws over the next 4 seconds of game time to seal a 95-88 Miami win and the second of his four NBA Finals MVP Awards.
Separating the wall display from the inset of the room is the very same yellow security rope that kept fans from crashing the floor that night at American Airlines Arena in Miami nine-and-a-half years ago.
“It was in a private collection for quite some time,” Wachter said of the jersey. “Our consigner decided it was time to part with it and obviously we were able to help him with that.”
“The One” is a curated series that according to a Sotheby’s press release is “…a new auction concept showcasing an unprecedented selection of the finest products of human achievement in history, which together tell an extraordinary story of excellence in craft, artistry and endeavor—from the great civilizations of antiquity to the fashion and entertainment worlds of today.”
The collection includes a pair of Chinese Export Famille-Rose Goose-form tureens and covers dating back to the 1780s expected to auction at $300,000-$500,000, a s well as as head of Buddha sculpture from 14th century Thailand at around the same price.
The oldest piece of the collection is a Guennol Bronze Age Celtic Disc from Denmark dating back to 1400 B.C.
More recent clothing selections are a ballroom gown designed by Victor Edelstein worn by Princess Diana in 1989 and a signed Kobe Bryant jersey from 2014-15, known as his left-handed jersey after a game in which he famously shot a pair of free-throws with his left hand after injuring his right shoulder drawing a foul.
Wachter said Sotheby’s will soon be auctioning off another jersey of the late Laker-great that is expected to fetch between $5 million and $7 million.
The value of sports memorabilia, he said, has been on the rise in recent years.
“Overall, we’ve seen demand for sports collectibles—really since the pandemic started—has really risen,” Wachter said. “Part of it is the pandemic left people with more time to identify things they were interested in. But since life has come back to normal a little bit, people kind of took that with them. For us, sports memorabilia is one of our fastest-growing categories.”
Wachter said mixing sports memorabilia with ancient art isn’t par for the course for Sotheby’s, but given the theme of the curation, he believes the LeBron James exhibition is fitting.
“It’s really unusual for us, but at the same time, while this group of property seems fairly disconnected it does have these underlying themes,” he said. “One theme is ‘suiting up,’ so we have a Japanese armor suit and you might also suit up to go to war in a basketball game. So we sort of tried to tie together different themes, but it’s about excellence in different endeavors.”
Wachter said he’s seen no diminishing in the value of sports memorabilia, even in the era of NFTs and a crypto-world that uses the term “provenance” as sacrosanct as even Sotheby’s does.
“I think people really connect with these items and they matter to them and I also think this identifies with people that historically might have found that having a painting above a dining room table might create conversation,” Wachter said. “I think people are realizing many things can be displayed as a work of art. If you put a LeBron, Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals jersey up, people are going to talk about it and I think we’re seeing a lot of people relate to that.”
As to whether LeBron might show up to Sotheby’s on Friday to buy back his famous jersey, Wachter was doubtful.
“I think he probably has better things to do,” Wachter said.