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Someone anonymously donated a pair of rare Air Jordans to a homeless shelter. The shoes turned out to be worth thousands

James Free is pictured holding a pair of of gold Nike Air Jordan 3 sneakers at the Portland Rescue Mission. (Aaron Ankrom/Portland Rescue Mission/AP via CNN)
James Free is pictured holding a pair of of gold Nike Air Jordan 3 sneakers at the Portland Rescue Mission. (Aaron Ankrom/Portland Rescue Mission/AP via CNN)
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A mystery donation of rare Air Jordans left at an Oregon homeless shelter earlier this year led to more than $50,000 in auction proceeds returning to the organization.

It all started in April, when a pair of gold shoes were anonymously dropped down a donation chute at the Burnside shelter of the Portland Rescue Mission, Erin Holcomb, the organization’s director of staff ministry, told CNN.

James Free, a formerly homeless man who is part of the organization’s long-term shelter program, found the shoes. The unique-looking kicks were set aside since they appeared to be in perfect condition, Holcomb said.

A quick Google search revealed the shoes looked just like a pair of gold Air Jordans worn by director Spike Lee during the 2019 Academy Awards when he won his first Oscar, according to Holcomb.

“So we thought, ‘Wow, what amazing replicas,’” Holcomb said. “In my head, I thought, ‘Maybe we can sell them on eBay for $100 as replicas.’”

Holcomb decided to take them to a local sneaker shop, where she discovered the shoes were part of just a handful of pairs made in collaboration with Lee for the director and his inner circle. They were never released to the public, Sotheby’s confirmed to CNN.

“I was absolutely shocked because I wouldn’t have ever in a million years imagined that those would have ended up in our donations bin. But obviously I was thrilled and amazed,” Holcomb said.

The shop owner offered to buy the sneakers right then, but Holcomb said she’d think it over.

She soon realized at least one pair of the other specially made shoes was previously auctioned by Sotheby’s. She then reached out to the global auction house, who told her they thought the shoes were perfect for a sneaker auction at the end of the year.

“They offered to waive their seller’s fee,” Holcomb said, allowing all profits to benefit the organization.

She reached out to the designer, Tinker Hatfield, who agreed to donate an unpublished design concept board used in his collaboration with Lee, as well as a replacement box for the shoes. Hatfield, a Portland local, even went to the Mission to autograph the memorabilia one day before Holcomb flew out to Manhattan to turn in the shoes in person.

An auction date was set, and Sotheby’s estimated the shoes would sell for between $15,000 and $20,000.

In a statement to CNN, Sotheby’s explained what made the pair of shoes so special despite not having been worn by Lee.

“With its limited production and unique design, coupled with Tinker’s signature on the box and the design proof, these sneakers are a true collector’s item,” Eric LiBassi, a specialist in Sotheby’s Streetwear and Modern Collectibles Department in New York, said in the statement.

“This pair is one of very few pairs made. They were reportedly reserved for Spike and a few others on his team,” LiBassi said. “Spike and Tinker worked to produce a colourway to commemorate his Oscar nomination for the film, BlacKkKlansman.” A colorway is a designer’s term for a color combination.

On December 18, more than a month after Holcomb turned in the shoes, the auction went live and the Rescue Mission held a watch party.

The shoes sold for $50,800.

“There was tons of clapping … cheering, hugging. People were just really thrilled and it was high fives, just a fun moment of seeing this amazing story come to a really beautiful conclusion,” Holcomb said.

“It’s remarkable how this whole thing came about, I am just fortunate to be a part of this,” Free said in a video posted on the Mission’s Facebook page after the auction closed. “This is going to take care of so many people in so many different ways, so thank you so much for this opportunity.”

Where the shoes came from and who bought them remain a mystery – one for which the Portland Rescue Mission’s staff said they are truly grateful.

“Whoever it was that purchased them, I think really created a beautiful ending to an amazing story and we’re so thankful, thankful to the person who gave them, whoever they were. They were willing to take the risk of entrusting us with these shoes,” Holcomb said.

The proceeds from the auction will go back to the Burnside shelter where the shoes were found, Holcomb said.

“It expands our ability to do meals, and overnight shelter and the critical services we provide there. We can get a lot of meals out of this donation, which is huge,” Holcomb said. “This is our busiest time of year, and we have a lot of demand (for) our services right now.”

The organization gets more than 130,000 pounds of clothing donated every year, which all goes out to people in need – the gold Air Jordan shoes being a rare exception – Holcomb said.

“We could not keep our doors open without so many people who give in smaller but critical ways to allow us to continue to serve people here,” she said. “These shoes contribute to that, but the bigger story, in my mind, is truly the generosity of our community.”

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