Why you can never have too many collectable handbags

The Wealth Report presents the first index dedicated to tracking the burgeoning market for this emerging asset class

We all know that splashing out on designer fashion labels can be expensive. Nonetheless, the idea of paying six figures for a used handbag may sound somewhat extreme. Increasingly, though, serious collectors are spending this kind of money at auction for the ultimate handbag “must have” – the exotic Himalaya Birkin, produced by Hermès.

In 2017, Christie’s set the world auction record for the most expensive handbag when it sold a Himalaya Birkin with white gold and diamond hardware. Under the hammer in Hong Kong, it achieved the equivalent of US$386,000. Since then, the secondary market for handbags has continued to grow, with pieces fetching dizzying sums on a regular basis. Indeed, such is the demand that Christie’s now host seven live and online auctions each year, in Asia, the US and the UK.

Aficionados can visit entire museums devoted to them – one in South Korea is even bag shaped – and in April, the V&A in London launches a dedicated exhibition, Bags: Inside Out. Passionate collectors such as Singapore socialite and entrepreneur Jamie Chua and Paris-based Julia Kovaljova have thousands of social media followers.

As with other investments of passion like rare whisky (see The Wealth Report 2019) whose value has risen sharply in recent years, handbags are increasingly being seen as an investment class in their own right, as well as highly desirable fashion accessories.

Above: Rachel Koffsky examines an auction lot.

To that end, Art Market Research (AMR), which supplies much of the data for the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index (KFLII), has launched the first indices tracking the price performance of handbags. For KFLII, we focus specifically on bags made by Hermès. Over the past ten years, this index has more than doubled in value, rising by 13% in 2019 alone. “All of our indices on antiques and collectables use a basket of goods methodology in the same way as the consumer price index,” says AMR’s Sebastian Duthy. “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.”

Although bags made by other luxury brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton are also highly collectable, it is those made by Hermès that attract the highest prices and are considered the most desirable. “The history of Hermès and the craftsmanship of the maison are intrinsic to the pieces, which greatly affects demand for, and therefore the value of, its handbags,” explains Rachel Koffsky, Head of Sales for Christie’s Handbag department in London. “Hermès was established in 1837 as a harness workshop. At the turn of the century new products were introduced as the maison diversified in order to meet the demands of a changing world, but the commitment to craftsmanship remained steadfast.

The first handbags created for ladies were designed in response to the invention of the automobile, and were crafted in the workshop using some of the techniques utilised in the creation of the famous saddles. “Other brands have come and gone, but in the century since these first handbags were introduced, the materials and techniques used by Hermès have remained extremely consistent – which is why so many have survived. The Birkin, for example, is made by hand in an atelier and can take up to 40 hours using a double-needle saddle stitch that cannot be replicated by a machine. It is the pinnacle of what a handbag can be. “With other contemporary brands, while bags may still be of high quality, sometimes fashion is the primary function. Hermès bags are made to last. That’s not to say we don’t sell beautiful bags from other makers – but there are far fewer of them.”