Collecting vintage briefcases

Designed for paperwork, these vintage bags have a new purpose in the digital age – dealers now often have waiting lists, says Victoria Woodcock

c1920 Norfolk hide attaché case, £2,500 from Bentleys
c1920 Norfolk hide attaché case, £2,500 from Bentleys

As a sartorial signifier of professional status, the briefcase is hard to beat. This structured bag first used for lawyers’ briefs (hence the name) has over the past two centuries carried trade secrets and sensitive state information alike – and the cachet of previous owners certainly plays a role in the appeal of vintage pieces. A year ago, for example, Sotheby’s sold an infamous red despatch box – the hard-sided case produced in ramskin – belonging to Winston Churchill when he was secretary of state for the colonies in 1921. It hammered down for £158,500, smashing its £5,000-£7,000 estimate.

Gucci crocodile attaché case, $4,450 from Opherty & Ciocci
Gucci crocodile attaché case, $4,450 from Opherty & Ciocci

But for most aficionados of well-worn leather carry cases, the allure has much more to do with style. And although examples do come up at auction, the majority are found through dedicated dealers. “The market for vintage cases has grown enormously as people turn away from homogenised modern cases and look for a more individual expression,” says Tim Bent, founder of west London’s Bentleys, a specialist in antique English leather accessories. “In the past 10 years prices have doubled in general, or tripled for certain examples. I’ve recently sold a number of vintage Louis Vuitton leather attaché cases from the 1920s. The quality is exceptional and the branding very discreet – just a stamp on the lock and LV on the clasps. But the craftsmanship speaks for itself. They sell for between £2,500 and £4,800.” These pieces were often made to a client’s specific measurements, but the house also produced briefcases in its famous monogrammed luggage ranges; last June Kerry Taylor Auctions sold a matching hard-sided briefcase and suitcase that belonged to Prince Loewenstein, the late merchant banker and financial adviser to The Rolling Stones, for £480.

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“I always have a waiting list for good briefcases,” says Robert Smith of Portobello Road dealers Fine & Vintage. “I recently sold a fine-quality, dark-green briefcase made by Swaine Adeney to a gentleman in Dubai. This particular one didn’t ever go on the open market. And it’s the same for attaché cases.” The term “briefcase” traditionally refers to soft-sided bags, often with a foldover flap on the front, while attaché cases are hard-sided with a hinged frame; folio cases have no handle and often concertina compartments for paperwork. Vintage examples of all are finding their way into discerning men’s working wardrobes.

Prince Loewenstein’s Louis Vuitton briefcase and suitcase, sold for £480 at Kerry Taylor Auctions
Prince Loewenstein’s Louis Vuitton briefcase and suitcase, sold for £480 at Kerry Taylor Auctions | Image: Kerry Taylor auctions

“I have three vintage cases, including a Swaine Adeney attaché and an interesting folio case bought from Bentleys about a year ago,” says Simon Crompton, author of men’s style blog Permanent Style, and How To Spend It contributor. “The folio is an innovative design from the 1910s. It looks great with tailoring and is really practical for day-to-day use. I chuck things like my phone and iPad in the main compartment, and often carry a shoehorn and business cards in the smaller sections.”

Winston Churchill’s c1920 leather despatch box, sold for £158,500 at Sotheby’s
Winston Churchill’s c1920 leather despatch box, sold for £158,500 at Sotheby’s | Image: Sotheby’s

Similarly, Alexander Gilkes, co-founder of online auction house Paddle8, uses his black diplomat’s attaché case with the Queen’s insignia for the tech he needs for his office on the go. A present from his brother and bought at the antiques market at Kempton Park, its elegantly worn appearance leaves him “intrigued about the journeys it might have been on”.

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Indeed, although originally designed to carry paperwork, these cases have found a new purpose in our digital age, and are still being put to professional use by architects, designers, lawyers and doctors, according to Bent. “The most sought-after brands are Louis Vuitton, Goyard and Moynat, but British names such as Asprey and Swaine Adeney offer excellent value and a more discreet sentiment. Look for vegetable-tanned leather and solid, cast-brass fittings. The best cases were made before the first world war, but the 1920s still had great craftsmen.”

Rome-based vintage dealer Marco Operti, co-founder of online vintage retailer Opherty & Ciocci, has several Italian examples from the pantheon of great briefcase-makers, including Valextra and Gucci. “We work a lot with the Gucci museum in Florence, which last year bought a 1970s semi-soft briefcase from us. Gucci started making bespoke cases around the 1930s, and the quality is incredible. We currently have a 1980s Gucci black crocodile attaché case [$4,450] that is very, very beautiful and very, very rare.” Operti also has an unnamed but equally pristine brown crocodile case priced at $850. He and Smith both find that crocodile attaché cases are always in demand.

Well-known brands certainly command higher prices, but stylish, well-made cases don’t necessarily carry a prestigious name. “The Bridge leather produced by Il Ponte in Florence is one of the best-quality leathers in Europe,” says Operti, “and the older its briefcases become, the better they look. A good example from the 1970s can be found for $200.” Daniel Seacombe, a senior manager at an international consulting firm, recently bought a dark-brown leather briefcase by The Bridge from Operti. “It’s 11cm wide and opens at the side, like an old doctor’s case,” he says. “I carry it with a blue or grey suit, paired with dark leather shoes, by Church’s or Battistoni. My clients are financial institutions, so it’s quite a classic look.”

Bent adds that “unique saddler-made cases are worth looking out for”, and he currently has one unbranded example from the 1920s, a soft, foldover briefcase (£595) in a mid-tan. “And my favourite attaché cases are made from a wet-moulded leather called Norfolk hide [£950-£2,500], which refers to Norfolk Road in Sheffield, where they were made. Light, exceptionally strong and developing a rich dark-brown patina over time, they’re among the best vintage attaché cases you can buy. I use one myself in an unusual small size – just large enough for a 13in MacBook Air – and dated 1929.” A lighter, chestnut case (£2,500) at Bentleys is embossed with the initials JEE. But what if your name isn’t John Edward Evans? “Initials used to put people off and uninitialled cases are always more popular,” says Bent. “But I now find some buyers appreciate the history they reflect.”

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