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Right alongside the old master paintings and the 100-carat diamond, Sotheby’s in New York City recently auctioned off a cheap plastic crown. But it wasn’t just any crown. The gold orb was donned by famed rapper Notorious B.I.G. for a 1997 photo shoot just three days before he was killed in Los Angeles. Signed by the artist on the inside, the crown sold for $600,000 amid fierce bidding — marking the first ever international auction devoted entirely to art and artifacts of the hip-hop world.

Photography provided by Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s — that elite upper-crust British auction house founded in 1744 — had been planning the sale for years to attract younger, more diverse clients seeking collectibles that chronicle their own lives. It’s a tactic that’s been trending among top auction houses as of late. From art-themed cocktail parties to partnerships with streetwear brands, there’s a concerted effort afoot to bring more millennials into the auction world. “We’ve had tremendous success developing new collecting categories such as handbags, sneakers, space exploration, and science and technology,” explains Sotheby’s Vice President and Senior Specialist Cassandra Hatton. “Hip-hop is just another example of an untapped market.”

The online sale took in north of  $2 million with some 400 bidders logging in from 19 countries, a quarter of whom were new to Sotheby’s. A top lot was the Rammellzee vs. K-Rob “Beat Bop” sealed original 12-inch single. It featured custom artwork by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who helped produce the LP. Considered a hip-hop holy grail of sorts, the vinyl snagged $126,000 — 50 times the catalog estimate, making it the most expensive hip-hop record sold at auction.

The sale also provided a chance to revel in the eighties with the so-called “Wall of Boom,” an art installation by DJ Ross One. The towering creation comprises 32 extremely rare and vintage boom boxes, all displayed on a custom-built shelf. Wired to produce a singular sound, the original work sold for $113,400.

Also on the auction block was a very personal archive of 22 autographed love letters penned by a 16-year-old Tupac Shakur to his high-school sweetheart. The naturally poetic writings foreshadow the rapper’s distinctive musical style and fetched $75,600. If bling is your thing, Fab 5 Freddy’s legendary diamond and gold MTV ring was one of the sale’s highlights. Designed by the television host himself and considered one of the most iconic pieces of hip-hop jewelry, the bauble brought in $35,280.

And because New York City was the birthplace of hip-hop in the 1970s, a portion of the sale’s proceeds supported community nonprofit Building Beats and hip-hop programs at the Queens Public Library Foundation — no doubt laying the groundwork for the next generation of hip-hop artists and aficionados. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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