Matthew Rubinger bounds into the boardroom at Christie’s, dressed head-to-toe in Gucci, “apart from my tie”. The 30-year-old New Yorker exudes the energy and enthusiasm of youth. One of the house’s youngest international directors, he has been overseeing its newest department – Handbags and Accessories – for the past four years. During that time, bags have become one of Christie’s fastest-growing categories thanks to a huge mindset shift. No longer are they simply covetable accessories.
In recent years, the right kind of luxury handbag has become a highly prized collector’s item, increasing in value and selling for considerable sums at auction. The last three handbag auctions mounted by Christie’s – two in Hong Kong and one in London – achieved $11.4m in sales, with many lots going for over £20,000.
There are some who would consider the presence of a handbag department within a hallowed art institution like Christie’s an anomaly, but the bags Rubinger auctions six times a year are dominated by rare or one-of-a-kind, highly crafted pieces from Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Chanel – the prices they achieve make headline news. The world record price for a handbag sold at auction has been broken every year since 2015. An Hermès Himalaya Birkin currently holds the title. Made from white crocodile skin, its 18ct gold hardware is studded with 10.23ct diamonds. The bag sold in 2017 for £293,000 at Christie’s Hong Kong, smashing the auction house’s 2016 world record, of £208,175, also for a white crocodile and diamond Himalaya Birkin.
Laid out on small marble slabs in the King Street boardroom is an elite array of Hermès Kelly and Birkin bags. All of them are rare or “exceptional”, the term used to refer to Hermès top-tier, unique, client-commissioned pieces often featuring solid-gold, diamond-studded hardware. One polished, dark-brown crocodile Birkin is studded with yellow sapphires instead of white diamonds. It’s such an unusual variant that at first Rubinger thought the bag had been altered after-market (ie, not by the Hermès atelier), making it ineligible for Christie’s sale, but the paperwork proves that it was bought at Hermès on Madison Avenue in New York. Whoever commissioned it must have held considerable sway to persuade Hermès to deviate from diamonds.
Then there’s the Kelly painted by artist Tom Sachs and emblazoned with the NASA logo. Christie’s has ruled this kind of after-market customisation acceptable if it’s done by artists it would represent in their own right. The emergence of bags customised by A-list artists is, says Rubinger, “an earth‑shattering shift in the market. Whether you see this as a Kelly or a Tom Sachs piece of art, it still has high value”. The bag was commissioned by Dasha Zhukova in 2008 for a fundraising gala and once belonged to Larry Gargosian, who displayed it as art. Rubinger has two clients vying for it. “One wants to put it on display, the other wants to use it, which is fascinating.”
Also in demand are Kelly 20s, the number referring to the unusual mini size that Hermès stopped making over 15 years ago, and two Kelly micro-minis. A decade ago, the Hermès bag everyone coveted was standard sized and came in classic black. “People used to say, ‘What do I want with this tiny little Kelly?’ Now they want a Kelly but in a version that nobody else has,” explains Rubinger. Collectors are applying to bags the same demand for rare, highly crafted, standout pieces as they do their jewellery or art. A rare Hermès Birkin might not command the same sale price as an impressionist painting, but Rubinger has found that the same client is investing in both. “It’s people at the top who are already buying important objects that end up in this area.”
And there’s no denying the investment value. “In 15 minutes, you can hook somebody who was not interested in bags by explaining the market,” says Rubinger recalling the time one big-spending client questioned the sanity of spending £20,000 on a bag. “We said his wife could buy a bag for £20,000 at the auction, which a few years down the line would sell again for at least £20,000 and maybe £25,000 to £30,000. Or she can go to a department store and buy six mid-tier brand bags in a year and probably spend £15,000 to £20,000, because all those mid-tier brands now cost £4,000 to £5,000. In two or three years, if she decided to sell those pieces, they would be very likely worth less than half of what she spent. It doesn’t take much explanation to start seeing the real investment side of the department. That’s what has made people begin to think about it like jewellery.”
Clients often store their bags with their jewellery – a sure sign of its jump in status. When Rubinger visited a collector, he was taken into her large walk-in closet. She walked to the far end, placed her palm on a security pad and a wall of shoes slid aside to reveal her bag collection displayed beside her jewellery inside a secret, steel-lined vault. Just how many bags does the average collector have? “Twenty or 30 is not uncommon. I would say there’s a good number of collectors in the 50 to 70 range, a few in the 70 to 100 and a handful with 100 or more.”
The old adage that things come to auction because of death, divorce and debt does not apply to bags. The most active buyers are also active sellers. “Often they’ve found something new and they are selling something to fund that purchase. Even for the really big collectors, they’re turning them, they’re editing their collections.” It’s Rubinger’s job to keep up with their demands. He’s based in London but travels the globe every week, sourcing bags and meeting clients. “I do try not to persuade them to sell. It’s a slow process, sometimes frustratingly slow. But even if they’re not ready this time they might be next.”
The bag market is so new that unlike other areas of high-level collecting there are no clubs, young patrons groups or museum societies for enthusiasts. Many clients only have Rubinger to turn to when they want to discuss their trophies. “We are a part of the collector community, they like to talk to us. They’ll want to know who else has a piece and what I think.” He welcomes the contact as it helps him keep tabs on rare and important pieces. “Even if they’re not coming up for sale, we should still have an idea where they are.”
Rubinger has been drawn to auctions since childhood. He grew up in New York and as a young teen would buy and sell things on eBay with his brother. “It was a fun hobby, a virtual lemonade stand,” he remembers. His mother asked the boys to find her a bag online. “Even at that age I thought, wow, this is a terrible offering. I can do better.” And he did, building up a sizeable business trading pre-owned designer bags and jewellery before he’d even graduated from high school. During holidays he oversaw handbag sales at Portero.com, which, at that time, was morphing from one of the biggest sellers on eBay into an online store in its own right.
He was one of the very few experts in an emerging market, and his talents did not go unnoticed. When Rubinger graduated from Vanderbilt, he faced a choice: join the Procter & Gamble marketing programme and begin the slow climb up the corporate ladder or set up and run the new Manhattan-based handbag department for Heritage Auctions, which had largely dealt in coins but was keen to expand into new categories. Spurred on by millennial zeal and his ability to spot a huge opportunity, Rubinger chose the auction house.
Christie’s presided over the first designer bag sale in 1978 when it sold a navy-blue flap bag from the personal collection of Coco Chanel to the Smithsonian for $800. The It bag craze, which raged from the 1990s through to the stock market crash of 2008, may have whetted the appetite for collecting, but because these pricey fashion bags were so seasonal, they never held their value. The market as it exists today started to take shape around 2011, when serious bag buyers began looking for pieces that could not just hold but also significantly gain in value. “Hermès gets all the headlines for this market, but it was really Louis Vuitton who kicked it off,” explains Rubinger, citing Marc Jacobs’ 2001 collaboration with artist Stephen Sprouse as a pivotal moment. “When he had the idea to pair Vuitton with a contemporary artist, it positioned the bags as collectors’ items.”
Some of Sprouse’s graffiti-daubed bags were produced as a limited catwalk edition, adding to their rarity and value. “There’s something nice about knowing that if you see a classic Sprouse Speedy, with big graffiti written in the white, green and peach colours, then it’s one of the original showpieces,” says Rubinger. (It’s also worth much more than the neon-lettered reissues made in greater numbers.) Whether you are buying new or at auction, details like that matter. “If you can get an iconic bag but a rare version, that’s the really valuable piece,” says Rubinger.