It was standing room only in Christie’s Hong Kong auction house this week as buyers from around the world clamoured to bid for a white crocodile skin Hermès Birkin handbag encrusted with 10.23 carats of diamonds. After a tense few minutes of bidding, the bag sold to a telephone bidder for a record-breaking HK$2.9m (£293,000).
Rare and expensive handbags – especially super-de-luxe French labels like Hermès and Chanel – are the new must-have collectable for the super-rich, with some women, including Victoria Beckham, owning hundreds of the most sought-after bags.
On Friday British handbag fans were invited to Christie’s world-famous St James’s auction house to touch and feel some of the most sought-after arm candy – although only after donning a pair of white gloves to protect the leather from sticky fingers – as the London auctioneer prepared for its first dedicated handbag sale. Around the world there will be six such Christie’s sales this year.
A glossy 130-page brochure has been produced for the London event, featuring 169 bags of every colour “to fit the discerning tastes of top international collectors”, with guide prices of up to £150,000. As in a standard auctioneer’s catalogue for fine art or antique furniture, each bag is described in detail and graded according to condition. Grade 1 means the item shows “no signs of use or wear” and comes in its original packaging. A grade 6 is damaged and requires repair – but is still “considered in fair condition”.
The star of the London sale is a 10-year-old navy-blue Birkin, with white gold and diamond clasps, expected to fetch £100,000–£150,000. A tad too much? Then what about a 28-year-old Hermès clutch with a picture of a steamboat on it for just £100 –£1,500?
“Handbags have really taken off since we launched the department in 2014,” said Matt Rubinger, Christie’s 29-year-old international head of handbags. “We broke the record sale price in 2014, then broke it again in 2015, 2016 and 2017. You get this sense that the momentum is significant.”
Rubinger said he expected many of the world’s leading handbag collectors, who include Katie Holmes, Rita Ora and Kelly Brook, to attend the London sale at Christie’s King Street auction room on 12 June. But he predicted that prices were unlikely to eclipse the £293,000 achieved in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
“The saleroom was full. Some of them were just there to watch the sale, but some were our top, top, clients from Hong Kong, China and some people from south-east Asia,” said Rubinger, who bought his first handbag online for his mother as a teenager and is now regarded as the world’s leading authority on luxury label bags. “We also had maybe 30 or 40 Christie’s colleagues ready and waiting with clients on the phone.”
Everyone was waiting for lot number 3449, which Chrisite’s described in the catalogue as “an exceptional matte white Himalaya Niloticus crocodile diamond Birkin 30 with 18k white gold & diamond hardware”. It is the most difficult handbag to make, and Hermès produces a maximum of two a year – although Victoria Beckham and Kim Kardashian have both been pictured with diamond-free Himalayas .
“The most valuable brand on the market is Hermès, and the most valuable and sought-after model is the Birkin,” said Rubinger, a New Yorker who moved to London to head Christie’s international team of handbag experts. “The most important collection [of Birkins] is the Himalaya, and the best example of that collection is the diamond version. So it is the most iconic, most important bag on the market.”
Rubinger, who was on the phone with the unnamed buyer when she made the purchase of three-year-old bag on Wednesday, said that as with most collectables, the rarity of the bag is what makes it so valuable.
The cheapest brand-new Birkin costs more than £5,000, but there is always a waiting list to buy the bag – and not everyone can even get their name on the list. Buying a Himalaya requires more than just cash.
“You or I could not walk into Hermès and say, ‘Please add me to the list for a diamond Himalaya,’” Rubinger said. “Even their top, top, buyers might not get one.” He added that all of the most expensive bags were Hermès, particularly the Birkin, which is named after British actress and singer Jane Birkin.
The Birkin proved immediately popular with other celebrities and has remained so ever since, dangling on the arms of famous women from Jennifer Lopez to Martha Stewart. Beckham’s collection of more than 100 Birkins, including a £100,000 shocking pink version, is said to be worth more than £1.5m.
According to Baghunter.com, which claims it buys and sells Hermès bags for “collectors, celebrities, royalty and other high-end clients”, the Birkin has beaten both the stock market and gold as an investment class since it was launch in 1984. The website worked out that on average Birkin bags have yielded an annual return of 14.2% since they were launched and the bag has never experienced any annual price decrease, even in years of recession.
Rubinger said the vast majority of luxury handbag buyers were women, particularly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, but “at the very top end often it is men buying for women”. Rubinger does not own any handbags himself.
Most of the women who treat themselves to a bag at auction, he says, say they will use it rather than keep it safe as an investment. But he adds: “Whether they actually do or not is a different question. It’s such an important iconic item that, similar to when someone buys an extremely rare Ferrari, they’re definitely planning to use it, but the actual miles on the clock are probably pretty low.
“At this level,” he says, “It is probably not going to be an everyday bag.”