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This Hermès Kelly 35 bag in Bordeaux Porosus crocodile leather, dating to 1998, achieved $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2024. Image courtesy of A.B. Levy’s Palm Beach and LiveAuctioneers.

The Hermès Kelly is more easily bagged at auction

NEW YORK – Most companies that adopt a strategy of telling customers they can’t buy its hottest products would soon end up shuttered and bankrupt, but the French luxury brand Hermès has enjoyed an almost absurd amount of success with that exclusive approach. Hermès Kelly handbags are fiercely coveted, second only to the house’s Birkin handbags in terms of demand from collectors.

Hermès was originally known for making saddles and tack for horse riders and their mounts. In business since 1837, the company began offering equestrian gear bags in 1892, and a few decades later, it resized and repurposed these bags for trendsetting women who wanted a stylish carry-all. The firm called them dispatch bags, or sac a depeches. In 1935, Hermès debuted the bag that ultimately would be christened the Kelly in honor of Grace Kelly, the Philadelphia-born actress who became a princess of Monaco. It was she who popularized the Hermès sac a depeche after a costume designer for the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief outfitted her young, wealthy tourist character with one. Kelly is said to have loved the bag so much that she kept it and made it her own. Married the following spring and soon finding herself pregnant, Kelly reportedly carried the Hermès in front of her to shield her baby bump from the lenses of the paparazzi. A photo of her sporting her elegant French handbag, printed in Life magazine, elevated the accessory to a must-have for fashionistas everywhere. Hermès officially gave it Kelly’s name in 1977.

A Hermès Kelly 32 in black box calf leather and black hardware from the So Black line, the last line Jean-Paul Gaultier created for the French firm, secured $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Greenwich Luxury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A Hermès Kelly 32 in black box calf leather and black hardware from the So Black line, the last line Jean-Paul Gaultier created for the French firm, secured $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Greenwich Luxury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Instantly recognizable for its trapezoid shape with hard sides and a top handle, the Hermès Kelly comes in a variety of sizes and colors. As with its famed sibling, the Hermès Birkin, Hermès Kelly bags are made by a single artisan who brings it into being by hand-stitching it from more than 30 pieces of leather in a process that lasts about 20 hours. And, as it does with the Birkin, Hermès releases Kellys in low numbers through its retail boutiques, and it doesn’t sell them to just any person who walks in off the street. Ample funds and enthusiasm aren’t enough to acquire a Hermès Kelly. Owing to the difficulty of obtaining one new, previously owned Kelly bags have become a booming auction category.

This circa-1982 Hermès Kelly gris agate ostrich handbag sold for CA$36,000 ($26,375) plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022. Image courtesy of A.H. Wilkens Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers.
This circa-1982 Hermès Kelly gris agate ostrich handbag sold for CA$36,000 ($26,375) plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022. Image courtesy of A.H. Wilkens Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers.

“Purchasing an Hermès Kelly directly from an Hermès boutique is notoriously challenging, primarily due to the house’s deliberate effort to uphold exclusivity,” said Diane D’Amato, director of luxury accessories at Heritage Auctions. “These highly coveted bags are made in limited quantities and are not readily available for simple purchase in stores; rather, customers must establish a significant purchase history to be considered for the opportunity to buy one. This strict control over distribution has created a strong secondary market, with the Kelly and Birkin bags in particularly high demand. This scarcity sets Hermès apart from other designers, whose products are much more accessible to buyers. Collectors and buyers are now turning to auctions to circumvent retail challenges, targeting specific sizes, colors, or materials.”

The top price on LiveAuctioneers for a Hermès Kelly bag belongs to this 28cm matte white Himalaya Niloticus crocodile example with 18K white gold and diamond hardware, which attained HK$3,000,000 ($383,270) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of Poly Auction Hong Kong and LiveAuctioneers.
The top price on LiveAuctioneers for a Hermès Kelly bag belongs to this 28cm matte white Himalaya Niloticus crocodile example with 18K white gold and diamond hardware, which attained HK$3,000,000 ($383,270) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of Poly Auction Hong Kong and LiveAuctioneers.

Prices at auction for scarce Kellys reach into the six figures, but there are perfectly gorgeous examples available for mid-five-figure sums. The top price on LiveAuctioneers for a Kelly bag belongs to a Hermès Kelly 28 matte white Himalaya Niloticus crocodile bag with 18K white gold and diamond hardware that attained HK$3,000,000 ($383,270) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at Poly Auction Hong Kong. Only the rarest of Kelly bags use diamond hardware, and those sporting matte white Himalaya coloring are rarer still, due to the exceptionally labor-intensive technique required to produce it.

“While the demand for mini and smaller bags continues to soar, larger bags are making a statement on the runway this season,” D’Amato said. “As for materials, exotic options like lizard and Porosus crocodile remain extremely popular, and of course, there is the enduring appeal of classic leather.”

This shiny, bright yellow Hermès Kelly 28 matte mimosa and gris perle Niloticus crocodile bag brought HK$500,000 ($63,880) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of Poly Auction Hong Kong and LiveAuctioneers.
This shiny, bright yellow Hermès Kelly 28 matte mimosa and gris perle Niloticus crocodile bag brought HK$500,000 ($63,880) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of Poly Auction Hong Kong and LiveAuctioneers.

She also states that “the most sought-after colors are pink, classic black, the iconic Hermès gold, and neutrals,” but it is hard to deny the allure of a Hermès handbag boasting a hue almost never seen in nature. Proving the point is a Hermès Kelly matte mimosa (aka yellow) and gris perle Niloticus crocodile bag that realized HK$500,000 ($63,880) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at Poly Auction Hong Kong.

Another view of a Hermès Kelly 35 bag in Bordeaux Porosus crocodile from 1998 that achieved $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2024. Image courtesy of A.B. Levy’s Palm Beach and LiveAuctioneers.
Another view of a Hermès Kelly 35 bag in Bordeaux Porosus crocodile from 1998 that achieved $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2024. Image courtesy of A.B. Levy’s Palm Beach and LiveAuctioneers.

Kelly bags range in size from 15 centimeters to 50 centimeters, and the number appearing after the word ‘Kelly’ stands for this metric measurement. The two biggest sizes are regarded more as travel bags than handbags, but large vintage examples definitely have their fans. Among the big bags bringing big prices was a Hermès Kelly 35 from 1998 in Bordeaux-colored Porosus crocodile leather that went for $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2024 at A.B. Levy’s Palm Beach.

The Mini Kelly 20cm and 25cm are the most popular sizes in the Hermès Kelly line, but D’Amato said larger bags, such as the 28cm, 32cm, 35cm, and 40cm sizes are not far behind. Debuted in 1957, Mini Kelly bags measure about 5 by 7in and are ideal for holding a few smallish items. They are typically more affordable than their full-size counterparts, but not by much. At auction, Mini Kelly prices range from $20,000 to $50,000. A Hermès blue celeste epsom leather Mini Kelly 20 sold well above its $14,000-$18,000 estimate in May 2023 when it secured $34,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions.

A Hermès Mini Kelly 20 bag in blue celeste epsom leather took $34,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A Hermès Mini Kelly 20 bag in blue celeste epsom leather took $34,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

“The blue celeste Mini Kelly stands out, particularly due to its beautiful blue hue and highly coveted size, making it the bag that everybody wants,” D’Amato said. “Despite its compact size, the Mini Kelly holds all your essentials – phone, keys, and credit card – while remaining effortlessly chic.”

The Kelly Picnic, introduced by Hermès artistic director Jean-Paul Gaultier in 2011 as part of his final collection for the firm, is a distinctive piece that has become a collector’s item, according to D’Amato. A limited edition Hermès Kelly 35 Barenia leather and Osier wicker picnic bag with palladium hardware sold for $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in March 2018. “The Fauve Barenia leather version is especially prized for its ability to develop a gorgeous, rich patina that enhances its beauty over time,” she said.

A limited edition Hermès Kelly 35 Barenia leather and Osier wicker picnic bag with palladium hardware went for $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A limited edition Hermès Kelly 35 Barenia leather and Osier wicker picnic bag with palladium hardware went for $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

While most Kelly bags are all about the leather, limited editions in other materials inspire robust bidding, such as a Hermès Kelly 35 Teddy bag having a brown sheepskin exterior and palladium hardware. It made $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020 at Greenwich Luxury Auctions. Designed by Gaultier in 2005, the bag was named for its teddy bear-like plush qualities.

A Hermès Kelly 35 brown Teddy bag with a sheepskin exterior and palladium hardware made $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Greenwich Luxury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A Hermès Kelly 35 brown Teddy bag with a sheepskin exterior and palladium hardware made $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Greenwich Luxury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Buyers who own a Kelly bag made from an exotic species of leather, such as alligator or crocodile, need to be aware of local regulations when traveling to other countries. Carrying a certificate from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES) is wise when crossing borders with these bags. Despite the potential hassle, alligator is a perennial favorite among the exotic leathers Hermès offers. A matte vert Rousseau alligator Hermès Mini Kelly 20 with palladium hardware earned $40,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023 at Heritage Auctions. This Mini has a removable shoulder strap and the brand’s famous round handle, known as a bracelet handle, which began appearing on Kelly bags in 1980.

This Hermès Mini Kelly 20 matte vert Rousseau alligator bag earned $40,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
This Hermès Mini Kelly 20 matte vert Rousseau alligator bag earned $40,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The market remains strong for those seeking to own one or more of these celebrated fashion accessories. D’Amato’s buyers hail from across the globe and range in age from their twenties to their eighties. “More than ever, both women and men are purchasing these bags, not just as personal accessories but also as gifts or investment pieces,” she said. “This expanding demographic is a testament to the lasting appeal and value in these highly sought-after bags.”