The quality that separates the secondhand from the truly charismatic collectable is often backstory. We love our antiques with a little glamorous baggage. Which is why vintage luggage, stickered with the itineraries of past owners – from Biarritz to Bath, Alexandria to Monte Carlo – is becoming particularly covetable to today’s high-flyers.
Nineteenth-century baggage ranged from flat-topped trunks, allowing articles “not required on voyage” to be stacked in the hold, to cabin luggage, such as wardrobe trunks and hat boxes. In the early part of the 20th century, luggage became lighter and so more portable, and the century’s most stylish suitcases and briefcases evolved, in glossy crocodile and alligator. Today, while travel is no longer synonymous with luxury, vintage baggage by the classic French malletiers and top British makers has never been more in demand.
A trio of Parisian makers head the trunk-fanciers’ wish lists: Louis Vuitton, founded 1854, Goyard, 1853 and Moynat, 1849. Of these, Vuitton fetches the biggest bucks. Dealer Tim Bent, of Bentleys, says: “Much of this is due to the increase in the brand owner’s appreciation of its heritage.” By which he means Louis Vuitton’s canny marketing. Last year saw the landmark exhibition Louis Vuitton Voyages, held in the National Museum of China in Beijing. And in 2010 the company published Louis Vuitton: 100 Legendary Trunks. Bent remembers: “In 2005, Vuitton trunks rarely broke the £20,000 barrier, but this is a regular level for exceptional pieces now.”
The record price for vintage luggage was achieved in December, in New York, when Christie’s sold a set of four 20th-century LV suitcases and a beauty case, owned by Elizabeth Taylor, for $110,500. On May 22, a 1920s LV canvas trunk is expected to fetch £4,000 to £6,000 at Christie’s in London.
Much of these items’ appeal lies in the craft. “You can see the workmanship without being an expert on it,” says Jurek Piasecki, former chairman of Aurum Holdings, who is now a non-executive chairman of e-commerce site Vintage Seekers. Piasecki and his wife are fans of fine luggage, new and old. “We have a lot of leather luggage, and we do buy vintage Louis Vuitton when we see it.” His tip? “The best deal isn’t from shops, but places like the fair at Goodwood Revival. Four years ago we paid about £6,000 for four pieces dated 1933 and 1934, from a German retailer there.” He adds: “If you want to use them as luggage, you can, but they’re great for decorating the house. We have them stacked in the main corridor and people always comment on them.”
Part of the charm of these cases is that their glamorous past is clearly visible. In the Goyard store in Mayfair, many of the vintage pieces on show bear stickers: “Hotel Regina Biarritz”, “Hotel Claridge Paris”. Jean Michel Signoles, the firm’s owner, has amassed over 700 Goyard cases. Possibly as a result, good examples are hard to find, and can be pricey. From Bentleys, a Goyard wardrobe trunk, with original interior fittings, circa 1925, costs £16,000. Now Moynat, bought by Bernard Arnault’s holding company in 2010 and relaunched last year, may be the French brand to watch. One of its leather travel bags, dated 1900s, was sold in March through Vintage Seekers for £950, but the 2011 designs, with touches such as brass “bridge” handles copied from early models, may lift vintage prices.
British brands offer excellent value. “The quality is as high as any French maker, but the names are still not as recognised globally. Asprey [founded 1781], Finnigans [19th century] and Drew & Sons [around 1844] can be bought for about a third of their French competitors,” says Bent. Dealer Colin Smith, of Smith & Robinson Antiques, specialises in 1920s and 1930s crocodile luggage by London makers. Prices are on the rise, he says, but still reasonable. “Ten years ago you could pick up an Asprey suitcase for £600 or less, but now they go for £2,000 to £5,000, in good condition.” Smith & Robinson offers an Asprey suitcase, circa 1925, in black (rare, probably custom made) at £4,500. Stock is pristine, glowing with polish, and has often been kept in original weatherproof canvas covers. Evocatively distressed is not his clients’ desired look. Though the cases are used, few clients take them on scheduled flights. “They’d be all right on a private jet,” he says. His own tan croc Gladstone bag, by London maker JW Allen, from 1910, enjoys a quiet life as a tie wardrobe.
Though many an old trunk has found peaceful retirement as an interior design accessory, vintage briefcases are enjoying a second career. Dealer Robert Smith, of Fine and Vintage, says: “iPads have changed the market. People want good quality carriers for them. I’ve got a waiting list for briefcases.”
James Green, a management consultant, has been buying Smith’s 1920s and 1930s crocodile valises. “I’ve discovered vintage briefcases over the last 18 months or so. I use one for my iPad and one for my laptop. The ones I’ve bought are unbranded but great quality. Everyone who sees them admires them.” Crocodile briefcases, in highly polished “London tan”, from makers such as Asprey, Finnigans and John Pound & Co, can be had for between £150 and £500.
To see a comprehensive collection of vintage luggage, you have to go to France. JP Rolland, a former software company CEO, made his first purchase, a “Courier” trunk by Moynat, two decades ago. Last year, he says, “I found I had more than 400 trunks in my attic. There were trunks in every room of the house and 300 in the garage.” So he and his wife set up a museum in Haguenau, near Strasbourg, to share their passion. It was opened last June by Daniele Masson-Vuitton, daughter of Henri Louis Vuitton.