It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Nike wasn’t a household name. But in the 1970s, shortly after it was founded by University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman and his former student Phil Knight, the fledgling company relied on word of mouth among track athletes to make inroads in the sneaker business.
Now, a relic from that era of history is heading to auction. An original “Nike 1” license plate belonging to Geoff Hollister, the company’s third-ever employee, will star in Sotheby's online Emergence auction later this month. Running between Dec. 8 and Dec. 18, the sale will feature sought-after Nike collectibles and sneakers.
In 1964, Bowerman and Knight partnered up to form Blue Ribbon Sports, an early iteration of Nike that distributed sneakers from the Japanese Onitsuka Tiger brand in the U.S. That same year, Hollister came to the University of Oregon’s track team as a steeplechase runner coached by Bowerman. He was subsequently brought into the emerging company’s fold and entrusted with selling Onitsuka Tigers across the state from his silver Moretti.
The early days of Nike
Hollister went on to help open a Blue Ribbon Sports store in Eugene, Oregon, an outpost he managed after returning from a three-year stint in the Navy. But when Blue Ribbon Sports and Onitsuka Tiger parted ways in 1971, with the footwear company rebranding as Nike, he took on a new role. Alongside Steve Prefontaine, the first runner signed by Nike, Hollister took off on a regional tour in a blue van adorned with a yellow ‘Nike 1’ license plate.
The duo drove to track meets across the Northeast, selling sneakers out of the van while “spreading the word of Nike,” according to Sotheby’s. “Hit all the track meets, state fairs, high schools, and colleges you can,” Knight recalled telling Hollister in his 2016 memoir Shoe Dog. “Go everywhere, and nowhere. Do everything, and nothing.”
The Oregon registered license plate is today one of the last remaining pieces of Hollister’s iconic van, which is replicated in Nike World Headquarters. Hollister, who died in 2012, passed on the artifact to his son Tracy, who held onto the license plate until now.
The historical collectible is expected to fetch more than $10,000 at auction. “The ‘Nike 1’ license plate bears witness to Nike’s storied ascent, and it is an honor for Sotheby’s to offer this supreme artifact for the very first time, shedding light on its pivotal contribution to Nike’s evolution into the formidable giant it is today,” said Eric LiBassi, a specialist in modern collectibles at Sotheby’s, in a statement.
Sotheby’s Emergence sale won’t be the first time an artifact of Hollister’s has gone on the block. In 2019, the auctioneer offered up a pair of Nike’s rare 1972 “Moon Shoes.” Designed by Bowerman and hand-cobbled by Hollister, the lot sold for $437,000 and set a then-record for the highest price for sneakers sold at auction.