Over the past five years, a seismic change has taken place in the market for vintage and pre-owned designer handbags: newer bags are fetching higher prices than equivalent older examples. “Prices and the market for items like rare 1930s art deco Hermès handbags are stable, at around £800 to £1,000, and a 1990s crocodile Hermès Kelly bag routinely fetches £8,000 to £12,000,” says specialist fashion auctioneer Kerry Taylor. “Yet now, a similar-style Kelly bag only a couple of years old might fetch double that in the secondary market.” Jérôme Lalande, leather goods specialist at Paris-based website Collector Square, concurs. “An example is the Hermès Constance, launched in 1969. The original is now worth about €6,400; the most recent pre-owned model fetches nearer €7,500.”
Christie’s runs biannual designer handbag auctions in London, Hong Kong and online via its New York office, with the record sale standing at HK$2,980,000 (about £298,000) for a rare diamond and gold-trimmed, white crocodile Hermès Himalaya Birkin.
Interest in bags as collectors’ items began in 1978, says Christie’s London handbag expert Rachel Koffsky, “when a bag belonging to Coco Chanel appeared in a sale of her effects – it is now in the Smithsonian Museum. Christie’s sold its first Kelly bag in 1988 and began regular sales of mainly vintage bags in 2006. TV series like Sex and the City – and the It bags it featured – fuelled interest, but things shifted with the 2008 financial crash. As the recovery took hold, people reassessed their buying habits and began to view classics, not seasonal trend pieces, as the real winners.” A recent example is a 2005 metallic bronze Hermès Birkin (a version only made for a year), which made €100,000 on an estimate of €8,000 to €10,000, when it sold at Christie’s Paris in December 2017.
The classics rule continues to hold true. “Instantly recognisable models from Hermès are the gold standard,” says Taylor. “The Chanel 2.55 and certain bamboo-handled Gucci models are also very sought after. Seasonal rarities are much less certain.” Classic colours like black, navy or tan are most likely to hold or increase their value.
But certain iconic special editions do have cachet, according to Lalande. “Only 1,000 models of the Birkin So Black were made in 2009, when it sold for €8,500. Now it makes between €22,000 to €28,000.” Taylor attributes the highest hammer prices, often achieved in Hong Kong, to “Chinese billionaires, for whom the Himalaya Birkin is the ultimate status symbol. They are driving the market at the top because even though they don’t want vintage, if they can’t get something new they will buy in the secondary market rather than not have it.”
There are two other factors serving to invigorate the secondary market, says Virginia Feacey, UK manager for German secondhand luxury fashion website Rebelle. “Some brands, notably Hermès, have long waiting lists,” she says, “and buying secondhand circumvents the queue. Also, top labels regularly put prices up – Chanel bags have risen in value by about 10 per cent in the past year – so buying a classic design that’s a few years old makes sense as it will reflect the lower original price.”
Secondhand luxury accessories website Collector Square has seen handbag sales rise over the past four years to account for 40 per cent of its €20m annual turnover. Lalande says that although the focus is on Hermès and Chanel, “Vintage pieces from other brands sell well if the shapes mirror current trends, and these are often good value. Recent Saint Laurent clutches are not unlike the 1960s versions (€350 to €750); classic bamboo-handled Gucci shapes (€300 to €1,000) don’t change much despite it being an über-fashion brand.”
Fakes are a major concern in this market and reputable sellers have in-house experts who authenticate items. “Experts learn to spot fakes by experience: it could be the number of stitches at a particular point, the thickness of the ‘authentication’ card or a serial number that doesn’t tally,” says Feacey. Taylor adds that bags bought for investment should not be used but kept pristine in the box along with all papers.
This creates a dilemma for aficionados who like to enjoy, as well as resell, their bags. Michelle Basson, a promotions company director, understands this instinct. “I use my bags but each one only occasionally” she says. “I clean them after each outing and store them in the original bag and box.” A Chanel and Vuitton collector, she often buys from respected Surrey vintage store Phoenix. She occasionally buys new with “half an eye on reselling – if you are patient you can get your money back – and more. The Chanel 2.55 I bought new for £2,650 five years ago now sells for over £4,000. But I have made mistakes with seasonal models. Now, if I want something different I buy for fun, not investment.”
Basson does not own an Hermès bag – “I’ve yet to find one I loved enough,” she says – but for many the brand remains the ne plus ultra. German former fashion consultant Senada Berwe collects Hermès. “I buy models I think will be future investments,” she says, “but I also use them, though carefully – especially my latest, a rare white leather Birkin. For a collector, Hermès is a must.”