Biggie Smalls crown likely to fetch top dollar at Sotheby's first-ever hip hop auction

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It started out as just a plastic prop from a party shop but the gold colored crown that American rapper Biggie Smalls wore on the last photo shoot before his death could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at Sotheby’s first-ever hip-hop auction.

After highlighting sneakers and handbags in recent years, Sotheby’s in New York is dedicating its September auction to hip-hop culture, featuring some 120 lots that will include boomboxes, photos of Snoop Dogg and Louis Vuitton luggage.

It is the first sale staged by an international auction house anywhere devoted entirely to hip-hop, and will trace the impact of the musical genre from the late 1970s through to the mid-1990s, Sotheby’s said.

“Probably the top lot is the crown,” Cassandra Hatton, the senior Sotheby’s specialist in the books and manuscripts department who put the auction together, told Reuters.

The signed crown worn by the rapper, also known as Notorious B.I.G, in the 1997 “King of New York” photograph and offered on sale for the first time, could fetch $200,000 - $300,000 at the Sept. 15 auction, Sotheby’s said.

“I think that crown is one of the most recognizable symbols of hip hop, 20th century culture. Everybody around the world recognizes this crown,” Hatton said. “You see it on T-shirts. You see it on coffee cups and prayer candles. It’s huge.”

Hatton said the plastic crown, which comes direct from photographer Barron Claiborne, is signed by both men and comes with a large print of the K.O.N.Y. photograph.

The Brooklyn-born rapper was shot dead in Los Angeles at the age of 24 three days after the photo shoot as part of a feud between east and west coast rappers that also took the life of Tupac Shakur, 23, in 1996. Both crimes remain unsolved.

Hatton said the decision by Sotheby’s to devote an entire auction to hip-hop reflects its impact over 40 years on fashion, design, art and pop culture.

Some hip-hop stars died young, often as a result of violence, a theme of much of their music. But according to Hatton, the focus of the lots is intentionally on the lives, and not deaths of the artists.

“It’s about what they created,” she said.

Additional reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Diane Craft