Hermes’ most desirable bag, the Birkin, is named after English actress and singer Jane Mallory Birkin, OBE (b. 1946). Based in France for much of her life, her fascinating career has included record albums and appearances in many important independent films, although late night television fans will recognize her from a role in the Agatha Christie film “Death on the Nile” (1978). Many projects were completed during her liaison with the multi-talented Serge Gainsbourg, which produced their actress daughter Charlotte. But in 1981, a chance plane-seat encounter with Hermes head Jean-Louis Dumas led him to design a new leather carryall, big enough for weekend supplies, and now the handbag is better known than its first owner.
This Special Order Horseshoe 35cm Shiny Electric Blue Birkin in Porosus Crocodile, the most desirable material, brought $81,250 at a 2015 Heritage New York Valentine Signature Auction. Courtesy Heritage Auctions
The Hermes Birkin, which comes in various sizes, distinctive colors, and leather combinations, is what wealthy women want most and, right now, the best way to acquire a new, mint-in-box example is through major auction houses. Expect to pay five-figure prices, some bring even more. Christie’s acquires bags in confidence for private clients, has set up a regular “Handbag Store” on the website, schedules online auctions, and now offers live catalogued sales. Two have been held in Hong Kong, one in Paris, and the first New York “Handbags and Accessories” sale will occur on December 11, 2015.
Special order Hermes Birkins attract collectors’ interest – here a 30cm Horseshoe Stamp Shiny Vert Emeraude and Bleu Izmir Nilo Crocodile example from 2014. Courtesy Christie’s
Unlike other categories of vintage clothing and jewelry, this is a market driven by rarity and brand name, not by age or provenance. Hermes leads the way, with a measure of participation by other top firms such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Heritage’s Brownawell outlines how it works: “About 90% of our Luxury Accessories Signature Auctions by value is in Hermes. The things we look for the most in consignments are bags that are brand new, straight from the store. Those are what bidders really like, those achieve the highest bids. We have printed catalogues at these sales; that’s one of our principal tools for bringing in bidders – and they’re gorgeous, we work very hard on them. With bags, it’s actually one of the few areas where provenance doesn’t mean much. Unless it’s Jane Birkin’s Birkin or Grace Kelly’s Kelly, the provenance doesn’t actually add that much value.”
The 35 cm Picnic Kelly in leather and wicker with Palladium hardware was part of a 2011 Hermes Limited Edition. Courtesy Heritage Auctions
Caitlin Donovan, Christie’s Specialist in Handbags and Accessories, says, “Most of the bags in our live auctions will be pristine, in their boxes with the original protective plastic on the hardware. We do have a number of vintage pieces in wonderful condition. There’s a different market for a vintage Kelly than there is for a brand new pristine Birkin. Hermes bags are made so well, they’re made to last. That’s a testament to the firm’s equestrian heritage – they made saddles and bridles. They were made to be used, not sit on a shelf in someone’s incredible closet. They still have that attention to detail and quality in the bags. You see examples from the 1970s and they look brand new. The stitching is intact and the leather has a beautiful patina, the dyeing is so even, it doesn’t fade over time.”
The diminutive bag Hermes called Quelle Idole – a play on Kelly Doll – was a playful production which now has a life of its own. An smiling orange Gulliver leather example, Taipei Limited Edition 2009, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong for $97,207 in 2015. (HK $750,000). Courtesy Christie’s
Donovan sees a developing demand for Hermes bags in smaller sizes as clients replace larger Birkins with 30 cm or even 25 cm ones: “People are going back to the idea of smaller, ladylike bags. There’s a trend across the entire bag market. We’re the only female-centered category in the auction world, and, although they are an investment, at its core the market is based on fashions which change. Independently wealthy women realize that if they’re going to spend $40,000 on a crocodile Birkin, in a couple of years they can probably get most of that back. They are one of the few items that couples prestige in the present with investment value for the future.”