The Birkin Bag is the stuff of legend. Everything from its creation to its construction is surrounded by myth and mystique. It apparently came about because Jane Birkin was sitting next to Hèrmes’s CEO Jean-Louis Dumas on a flight and complained about her inability to find a receptacle big enough to hold all her things.
Each one takes 48 hours of work by a single artisan, none of whom are allowed to so much as touch a piece of hide until three years into their training. This year a version of the Hèrmes Birkin, in matte white “Himalaya” crocodile skin encrusted with 205 diamonds, broke the world record for a handbag sold at auction, fetching £293,000 when it went under the gavel at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
“There’s so much focus on this market right now, which is why we’ve broken records three years in a row,” says Matthew Rubinger, International Head of Handbags and Accessories at the world-renowned auction house.
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Given the record-breaking sales around the world, it would be easy to presume that the market for vintage bags has been a recent thing but, as Rubinger explains, this has been slowly building momentum since the 1970s.
“The first handbag we sold at auction was back in 1978, when we handled the sale of the personal collection of Coco Chanel in London,” he says. “It was a navy bag that was sold to the Smithsonian. Through the 1980s and 1990s, we periodically auctioned bags, mostly through estate sales, but in 2000 there was a shift.”
This shift was the removal of “fashion” from the “textiles” umbrella, giving it its own department that was eventually branded “elegance”, showcasing the best in fashion and accessories, including handbags.
“These sales were pivotal because they identified a strong interest in this sub-sector of the fashion industry,” says Rubinger. “We eventually put handbags alongside watches and jewellery, which caused a further shift in perception, meaning they were seen as collectors’ pieces with real investment value. After that the market really started to take form and, in 2012, ‘handbags and accessories’ were made into a standalone department.”
Initially, this new sector of the Christie’s portfolio was only auctioned online, then in 2014 it held its first-ever live sale in Hong Kong. 120 pieces were on offer with a pre-sale value of around HKD7m (approx £674,000). Unsurprisingly, the highest three sellers were all Birkins, including a limited-edition tri-colour ostrich ghillies version, which almost doubled its pre-sale estimate of HK$280,000 (approx £27,000).
The following year, the same auction sold a fuscia Birkin Himalaya for a whopping £146,000, snatching the crown of ‘the most expensive bag sold at auction’ from a piece owned by Elizabeth Taylor, which went for £144,000 at her famous 2011 auction. (Yet another Himalayan crocodile Birkin was sold directly by Hermès for £284,000).
Rubinger says the growth in sales has been organic, with Christie’s taking steps as and when opportunities arose. “It’s been in the last five years that things have really proliferated,” he says. “The wider collectors’ market has exploded, too, and it’s now enormous at the mid-range price bracket.”
The following year, the same auction sold a fuscia Birkin Himalaya for a whopping £146,000, snatching the crown of ‘the most expensive bag sold at auction’ from a piece owned by Elizabeth Taylor
Essentially, while there will always be big hitters that garner headlines and break records, far more are relatively modest sales to women who just want to own an icon. Take the Birkin: it’s notoriously difficult to just wander into a store and buy one, thanks to a combination of limited supply and frenzied demand.
Hèrmes apparently only makes 70,000 a year, though given the training its artisans have to go through, the number can fluctuate depending on how many have graduated to ‘master craftsman’ status. For many women, the only way to get hold of one is at auction.
“We have our major buyers,” says Rubinger, “those who have big collections of high-value items, who purchase in order to own a particular piece that will be the ‘cherry on the top’, but we also have our ‘everyday’ bag clients. They’re usually locals who want to understand the lasting value of new pieces. It helps that we price conservatively and certainly wouldn’t advise anyone spend ridiculous amounts on their first purchase.”
For those who fancy splurging on something special, Christie’s is holding an auction of exceptional handbags and accessories in Paris on 12 December; bids can be taken online if you can’t make it in person.
“It’s a really dynamic sale,” says Rubinger. “There’s a lot in terms of Chanel runway pieces, such as a plexiglass Matryoshka [Lot 248] from the A/W 12/13 Paris-Bombay show, which I finally convinced its owner to sell, and a Zodiac bag from the 2007 Monte Carlo show [Lot 252]. There’s also a single-owner collection of 40 crystal evening bags from the likes of Judith Lieber and Kathrine Baumann.
"Lieber owned her own company until the 90s but the 80s bags are very important because they were designed by her, while Baumann’s designs, such as her Perrier Jouet champagne bottle [Lot 216] or perfectly proportioned Diet Coke can [Lot 215], are cheeky, unique pieces that have never been auctioned before.”
As always there’s Hèrmes galore, including a yellow Kelly 20 (Lot 33) that was originally sold at the 2011 Elizabeth Taylor auction. “This is a resell and it’s a really smart move by the original owner,” says Rubinger. “Six years ago, the fervour was around Liz Taylor, but since then the market for Hèrmes has changed.
It helps that this bag has been discontinued for 10 years, as has that particular colour of leather. There’s still the Liz Taylor provenance but this is a special bag in its own right.” With a guide price of €20,000-€30,000, this isn’t exactly an everyday bag.
If you’re in the market for a potential record-breaker of the future, however, there’s always Stalvey. This brand has only been around since 2014 – set up by the eponymous Jason, who also runs the division of neurological sleep medicine at Columbia University – and has been seen on the arms of millennial It Girls including Gigi Hadid and Kaia Gerber. Those names might not sound like an endorsement synonymous with the Christie brand cache, but Rubinger is convinced it’s a “will be” brand.
All of this has probably got you doing a mental run through of your grandmother’s wardrobe, but according to Rubinger, you’re unlikely to turn up anything auction worthy. “With handbags, unlike other collectibles, such as watches, things don’t ‘get lost’. The information is generally out there,” he says. “The best thing you can possibly find is a Kelly. It’s still super popular and sells well even if it’s beat up with a cool patina.”
The Sacs & Accessories auction will be held at Christie’s Paris, 9 Avenue Matignon, on 12 December. The auction will start at 2pm, with the lots are available to view from 8 December.