Hermes – Birkin Handbags

20th Century Iconic Art, without the Baggage

Alastair Meiklejon, Senior Valuer

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A handbag is by definition an item of luggage that carries one’s items in a simple and yet practical manner. However, in the world of designer and haute couture pieces, it’s much, much more than that.
In the last 20 years, collecting has waned in numerous fields, long gone are the days when that ultra-desirable piece of porcelain from Eastern Germany caused a furore in the auction world… there are however a new breed of collectors who consider exclusivity, style and quality to be of a far higher imperative than age or other factors.
The best place to start with any overview of handbags is the classic Birkin by Hermes. Whilst it is nowhere near the oldest, or most original bag on the market – it defines what has become the phenomenon of collecting what many might consider to be an everyday item.

Hermes Classic Birkin 35

The Birkin was originally designed by Jean-Louis Dumas in the early 1980s and named after the English actress and sometime muse of Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin. Designed to contain all that a lady needed from make up to a hairbrush, and no doubt a few packets of Gauloises.
Since its initial launch the Birkin has become what can only be described as the near definition of a Veblen item, with demand far outstripping availability. It was an instant investment from day one and many collectors now long for those early bags that represented the ethos of the Birkin, in maybe its purest form.
When looking at collections of handbags, one is often struck by the lack of use that these items actually have. I have clients that purchase a £25,000 bag for Royal Ascot, and it will see the light of day for maybe 12 hours at most, then become relegated to the ‘also ran’ shelf at the back of the undoubtably extensive wardrobe.

Hermes Birkin exclusive design by George Condo – gifted by Kanye West to Kim Kardashian

What still shocks me, and usually the owners of these glamorous items, is their ever-increasing values. The most basic, (if the word ‘basic’ should ever be applied to a Birkin), usually increases by at least 15% each year. The very nature of the way that these are produced means that replacing an item, like for like, is pretty much impossible unless you can find one on the ever increasing (but often over inflated) secondary collectible handbag market.
Naturally, over the years bags that have been long since discontinued have gained an almost legendary, mythical status with some exotic skin models reaching astronomical figures, well into the £100,000s bracket. What’s strange is that there are still some bags out there that were purchased still in private collections that are used every day, and the owners have no idea of their potential value.
As a valuer I see, on a weekly basis, these iconic, almost legendary pieces of artwork relegated to a general contents category when it comes to insurance, when in fact they exemplify a modern collectible – certainly not just baggage.

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