As origin stories go, this one takes some beating.
In the early 1980s, Jane Birkin – singer, model, trendsetter – was sitting next to then-creative director for Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas, on a flight. He commented on her simple straw bag; she explained that most leather bags were too structured and not big, or boho, enough for her liking. So, right there at 30,000 ft, the two designed a new one, drawn on the back of an airsickness bag. And, in 1984, the Hermès Birkin was born. A bag that would beat auction-house records to become the most collectable pre-owned style today.
To be clear, handbag collecting is really not about getting on the waitlist for a new style – savvy buyers know that vintage is the way to go. “The awareness regarding investment value of handbags has grown significantly over the past few years,” explains Rachel Koffsky, head of sale for Handbags & Accessories and auctioneer at Christie’s London. “The handbag category has been a niche collectable for decades,” she explains. Indeed, Christie’s first auctioned a handbag in 1978 – kicking off in style, with a navy-blue flap bag from Coco Chanel’s personal collection, which the auction house bought for a mere $800.
“As Christie’s increased the number of sales [of handbags], broke world records and alerted the world to the desirability of these seemingly ubiquitous accessories, the headlines and new collectors followed,” Koffsky tells us. “In addition, the [more recent] conversation regarding sustainability has brought a new angle for many collectors. Purchasing a piece at auction with the knowledge that it will stand the test of time is an added benefit for many clients.”
While Coco Chanel was always going to be a tough act to follow for Christie’s, another defining moment came in 2017, with the Hong Kong auction of a Hermès Birkin. The matte white “Himalaya” crocodile-skin bag, encrusted with 205 diamonds no less, broke the world record for a handbag sold at auction, fetching HKD $2.94 million (approximately £283,000).
The stats back up this rising trend, too. Knight Frank’s Luxury Investment Index, which tracks the performance of a theoretical collection of assets – art, classic cars, fine spirits, all the stuff we like – first acknowledged handbags in 2019, after a year-on-year rise of 13% in the category knocked rare whisky off the top spot.
“All of our indices on antiques and collectables use a ‘basket of goods’ methodology in the same way as the consumer price index,” explains Sebastian Duthy, director of Art Market Research (AMR), an independent analysis firm that supplies Knight Frank with much of this data. “However, it’s only been possible to create an index on handbags now because of the frequency with which many iconic pieces are coming to auction today.”
How to start your vintage bag collection:
How to start your vintage bag collection:
Do your research.
Despite prices going up in this sector, you don’t have to have a spare half-mil lying around if you want to start collecting handbags; you do, however, have to do a bit of research.
Decide whether, for you, it’s about the bag or the brand.
As we’ve mentioned, Birkins aren’t known for their affordability, but if you like the cut of Hermès’ cloth, then maybe consider starting with a Kelly – all of the style, with a lesser degree of intimidating bidding-war frenzy (and still a decent investment).
Diversify beyond the top names.
While Chanel and Hermès will always dominate, with Prada and Louis Vuitton coming in very closely behind, the likes of Gucci, Balenciaga, Dior and Valentino are still solid investments.
Look out for the unusual, the limited or the discontinued.
“I seldom buy vintage, but when I do, it’s usually limited edition or an icon or memory,” explains one Lymited collector of vintage bags. “For example, I bought a Louis Vuitton Theda bag in Paris, at Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen [the largest antiques and second-hand market in the world], because of the multicoloured monogram, which had been discontinued.”
Buy at the top of your budget.
Because, Koffsky advises, “for investment pieces, you get what you put in. Spending a bit more for a piece in better condition will ensure a longer life for your new bag.”
Buy what you love.
“Look for a special piece that speaks to you,” Koffsky concludes. “It is essential to begin your collection with a piece that excites your passion for handbags.” And don’t keep your purchases in a safe. Handbags are made to be displayed.