What you see: A 2011 Himalaya Niloticus crocodile Hermès Birkin 30 handbag with 18K white gold and diamond hardware. Christie’s Hong Kong sold it in November 2017 for HKD $2.9 million, or roughly $382,000, a world auction record for any handbag.
The expert: Caitlin Donovan, vice president, head of sale auction and private sales for handbags and accessories at Christie’s New York.
Why does Hermès dominate the secondary market for handbags? Hermès dominates the market because they created supply and demand, based on how difficult it is to get pieces on the primary market. People have to come to the secondary market to buy bags because they can’t walk into a store and buy them.
And why, among Hermès handbags, does the Birkin dominate so completely? The Hermès Birkin and the Hermès Kelly, both those two are in the lead. Again, it has to do with exclusivity. They’re released in limited numbers. The Kelly sells for a little bit less on the retail market, but both are exclusive and sell for comparable premiums on the secondary market.
How many Birkins does Hermès make in a given year? There are no definitive numbers.
How often does Hermès make the particular type of Birkin that holds the world auction record? Again, there are no definitive numbers. I, as a handbag specialist, might see a couple a year.
The record-breaking Hermès Birkin is described as being matte white in color. The two previous record-holders were also matte white. Is that a coincidence? If not, why are collectors so keen on matte white Hermès Birkins? They’re matte white, but they’re Himalaya. It’s [the subtle coloration of the bag requires] a technical dyeing process that only very skilled craftspeople can produce. It’s dyed in degrees that most resemble the [colors of the] top of the Himalaya mountains. It’s the rarest, most exclusive bag, and Hermès is said to be not producing it anymore. If you want it, you have to go to the secondary market.
So, Hermès might have stopped making the matte white Himalaya Birkins? It could also be that Hermès is very controlled in its release of inventory. They pride themselves on [creating] wearable works of art. They make sure not to flood the market with pieces.
What does “Niloticus” mean in this context? Does it describe the type of crocodile leather used for the record-breaking Hermès Birkin? Yes, it’s the crocodile skin used to make it. Up to now, Hermès uses Niloticus or Porosos crocodile skin, but the finest is Niloticus.
Why is Niloticus considered the finer of the two? It probably has something to do with the dyeing process. Porosos has holes in the scales, little breathing holes that are noticeable. Niloticus scales are more even in size and symmetric.
The record-breaking Hermès Birkin has a “30” in its description. What does the number mean in this context? It indicates the size. Common sizes are 25, 30, 35 and 40. Smaller pieces are on trend. Collectors in Asia and the Far East favor smaller pieces.
How did the presence of 18K white gold and diamond hardware affect the auction performance of the record-breaking Hermès Birkin? Majorly, as you can imagine. They make the piece more elusive and valuable.
The lot notes for the record-breaking Hermès Birkin say it earned Condition Grade 1. What does that mean here? Our bags are graded on a scale of one to five. At auction, most fall within the range of one to three. One is exactly the same condition as if it was purchased from the store. Collectors want this condition. They don’t want signs of use.
So an Hermès Birkin that earns Condition Grade 1 is still in its original box, with all its accoutrements, and the packaging still in place? Correct.
And if an otherwise great Hermès Birkin was missing any of its accoutrements? It would be affected, but it depends on the preferences of the person who buys it.
Since 2015, the world auction record for a handbag has broken several times, and each time, it broke at Christie’s. Why is that the case? Major collectors of handbags are comfortable with Christie’s, and we have the top offerings globally. That plays a role in breaking records.
Have you seen the record-breaking Hermès Birkin in person? Yes. I was there in Hong Kong for both [the May 2017 record and the November 2017 record]. It’s beautiful. You understand the craftsmanship in the bag when you see it in person.
And the only difference between the Hermès Birkin Himalaya that broke the record in May 2017 and the Hermès Birkin Himalaya that broke the record in November 2017 is the years in which each was made? Yes, that’s the only difference.
What was it like to see the auction handbag record break twice in the space of a year? In Hong Kong, the energy in the room is fabulous. Handbags are a new collecting category, and setting records is integral to building the category. It’s exciting and emotional to see records broken.
Does the Hong Kong saleroom have its own unique energy? Yes. New York, Geneva and London have different energy. That said, a full sale room is a full sale room. There are different types of collectors in each area.
Why do you think the world auction record for a handbag broke twice in 2017? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we started the department in 2014 and it took a few years for it to get established at Christie’s. By 2017, we were three years into auctions, and we’d built a client base.
What was your role in the November 2017 record-breaking Hermès Birkin auction? Were you on the phone with a client? Yes.
Was the winning bidder in the room? I can’t say who the buyer was, but there was definitely competitive bidding in the room.
Since November 2017, the auction record for a handbag has remained stable after a few years during which it turned over fairly constantly. Why do you think things are seemingly less intense now? A bag hasn’t come up to this degree [a bag that rivals the record-holder], but I wouldn’t be surprised if something comes up this season. The record is ready to be broken at any time.
When do you think we’ll see a Hermès Kelly become the most expensive handbag at auction? I’d love to see our record get challenged. A Kelly or another could break the record. I would love that, to be honest.
Would a potential record-breaking Hermès Kelly have to be similar in style to the record-breaking Hermès Birkin, do you think? A Hermès Kelly in 18K gold and diamond hardware in Himalaya white could break the record. I don’t know if it exists, but if it does, it could break the record.
Why does this record-breaking Hermès Birkin stick in your memory? These pieces are wearable works of art. Even when you see bags all day long, when you’re around a piece as beautiful as this, you appreciate it.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction. Follow her on Twitter at @SGSwritereditor.