Press Release

Sotheby’s Announces Auction Celebrating The History & Cultural Impact of Hip Hop

New York
Featuring Fine Art, Artifacts, Memorabilia, Photography, Fashion, Jewelry & More

Headlined by:

The Crown Worn & Signed by Notorious B.I.G.
From the Iconic 1997 ‘King of New York’ Photograph
The Rapper's Last Recorded Photoshoot
Estimate $200/300,000
An Archive of High School Love Letters
Handwritten by Teenage Tupac Shakur
Estimate $60/80,000

A Portion of Sotheby’s Proceeds to Benefit the Queens Public Library Hip Hop Programs and Building Beats, A Non-Profit Community Organization Focused on DJ & Music Programs

Barron Claiborne, 'Notorious B.I.G. as the K.O.N.Y (King of New York)'
Barron Claiborne, 'Notorious B.I.G. as the K.O.N.Y (King of New York)'

NEW YORK, 25 August 2020 – Sotheby’s is honored to announce an auction celebrating the history and cultural impact of Hip Hop on 15 September in New York. The first-ever dedicated Hip Hop auction to be presented at a major international auction house, the sale reflects on the impact Hip Hop has had on art and culture from the late 1970s through the “Golden Age” of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, and up to the present. Featuring over 120 lots, the auction is comprised of unique artifacts, contemporary art, one of a kind experiences, photography, vintage and modern fashion, historic and newly designed jewelry and luxury items, rare ephemera including flyers and posters, important publications, and more. The majority of items on offer in the sale have been consigned directly by artists or their estates and the full contents of the auction will be announced at a later date.

A portion of Sotheby’s proceeds will benefit the Queens Public Library Foundation, to support their Hip Hop Programs, coordinated by “Uncle” Ralph McDaniels, as well as Building Beats, a non-profit community organization that teaches tech, entrepreneurial and leadership skills to underserved youth through DJ and music programs.

The auction was organized in collaboration with Monica Lynch, former president of Tommy Boy Records (1981-1998) who helped launch the careers of legends Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and Naughty by Nature, among many others.

"Since its birth in the Bronx in the 1970s, Hip Hop has become a global cultural force, whose massive influence continues to shape all realms of culture: music, fashion, design, art, film, social attitudes, language, and more. This sale is a celebration of the origins and early eras of that influence. We are pleased to announce the auction with two renowned and beloved icons whose lives and lyricism continue to resonate — Biggie and Tupac — with lots that offer an introspective look, in their own way, at the personalities behind their respective public personas."
Cassandra Hatton, Vice President & Senior Specialist in Sotheby’s Books & Manuscripts Department

A dedicated exhibition for the Hip Hop auction will be on view by appointment in Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries from 11 – 15 September. The exhibition will also be available to the public online via our new immersive digital gallery experience.


Leading the auction is the crown worn by Christopher Wallace (aka Biggie/Biggie Smalls and Notorious B.I.G.) during the 1997 ‘K.O.N.Y. (King of New York)’ portrait session, the rapper’s last recorded photoshoot before he was killed in Los Angeles three days later. The crown, which was recently showcased in the groundbreaking book and exhibition Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak, is on offer by the photographer Barron Claiborne, whose possession it has remained since the photoshoot. Included in the lot are three specially sized (36 x 40") prints – all 1/1 printed and signed by Claiborne – of the iconic ‘K.O.N.Y’ photograph, the 10th anniversary K.O.N.Y. photograph, and the contact sheet (estimate $200/300,000). The interior of the crown bears the inscription “Crown from Biggie KONY Shot NYC 3-6-97” and is signed by both Biggie and Claiborne.

Hired by Rap Pages Magazine to photograph Biggie for the cover, Claiborne’s concept was to portray the rapper as the King of New York on his throne but in a stripped-down manner – a departure from the popular over the top Hip Hop imagery of the late 90s. To style Biggie as royal, Claiborne brought two crowns of different sizes to the shoot; one was far too small, and in order to make the now-legendary crown fit, the interior foam cushioning had to be removed. Sean "Diddy" Combs, owner of Biggie’s label Bad Boy Records, accompanied the artist on the shoot, and was reportedly unhappy with the concept, worrying that it made him look like "the Burger King". However, Biggie was open to the idea, resulting in one of the most recognizable images in Hip Hop culture and one of the most famous Hip Hop portraits ever taken.

"After 23 years in my possession, I’m very excited to share this iconic piece of Hip Hop history with the public. With the tragic events that unfolded just days after the photoshoot, this image of a crowned Notorious B.I.G. became much more than a portrait – the image transformed Biggie Smalls into an aristocratic or saint like figure, forever immortalized as not only the King of New York, but a king of Hip Hop music and one of the greatest artists of all time."
Barron Claiborne (BC Africanus), Photographer and Consignor


Another auction highlight is a deeply personal archive of 22 autographed love letters written by a 16-year-old Tupac Shakur to Kathy Loy, a high school sweetheart and fellow student at the Baltimore School for the Arts (estimate $60/80,000). A total of 42 pages on 24 sheets of paper and one greeting card, the letters are signed by Shakur with a variety of terms of endearment: “Love, Tupac”, “4 Eternity, Tupac”, “With Passion, Tupac", "Forever Yours, Tupac" and "With All My Heart, Tupac". Written when Shakur was enrolled in the 10th grade theater class and Loy was enrolled in the 11th grade theater class, the letters range in date from late March 1987 to April 1988 and chronicle the approximately two-month long romance between the pair – spanning their first meeting, to their eventual break-up, and a letter of regret sent a year later.

The heartfelt and sweetly-sincere correspondence reveals Shakur’s vulnerability and naturally poetic writing-style, with frequent lyrical turns and separate love poems included in the body of the letters, which set the foundation for his distinctive style and tone as a rapper. For example, in one letter he writes "I love you now more than ever, want you now more than before, No one compares to you, the one that I adore...". The letters capture a whirlwind romance between the couple with Shakur promptly professing his love to Loy but then just as quickly experiencing feelings of insecurity and the fear of losing her.

The letters also illustrate Shakur’s close friendship with fellow student Jada Pinkett, who he refers to in one letter writing, “Jada told me she can see how much I love you…’, as well as provide a small glimpse into his home life with mentions of his mother working late nights and his responsibilities to help care for his cousins.

Shakur even writes to Loy about his nascent music career, divulging the future superstar’s doubts about pursuing rap as a profession. He pens "My old manager came over and said she doesn't want me to retire from rap but I think I am because I can't handle too much rejection and I don't have the time....”. Shakur also admits to fearing rejection and his lack of confidence, noting that “I just want to be less sensitive and less of a pest.... What I am feeling has to do with my insecurities, and I have to handle that on my own....”.

In the final letter addressed to ‘Ms. Loy’ and written nearly a year after the pair's break up, Shakur shares that now, at the age of 17, he has moved out of his mother's home and sincerely expresses regret over their break-up while tenderly recalling the good times they spent together writing, "Forgive me while I you remember?".

Hallie Freer
+1 212 606 7176
Derek Parsons
+1 212 606 7176

About Sotheby’s
Sotheby’s has been uniting collectors with world-class works of art since 1744. Sotheby’s became the first international auction house when it expanded from London to New York (1955), the first to conduct sales in Hong Kong (1973), India (1992) and France (2001), and the first international fine art auction house in China (2012). Today, Sotheby’s has a global network of 80 offices in 40 countries and presents auctions in 10 different salesrooms, including New York, London, Hong Kong and Paris. Sotheby’s offers collectors the resources of Sotheby’s Financial Services, the world’s only full-service art financing company, as well as Advisory services for collectors, museums, corporations, artists, estates and foundations. Sotheby’s presents private sale opportunities in more than 70 categories, including three retail businesses: Sotheby’s Wine, Sotheby’s Diamonds, and Sotheby’s Home, the online marketplace for interior design.

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* Estimates do not include buyer's premium or overhead premium. Prices achieved include the hammer price plus buyer's premium and overhead premium and are net of any fees paid to the purchaser where the purchaser provided an irrevocable bid.

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