No bag is as coveted at auction as the Hermès Birkin. ‘For handbag collectors, they are the ultimate status symbol,’ says vintage fashion expert Pénélope Blanckaert. ‘They are more than fashion accessories — they are art.’
It takes a single expert craftsman up to 40 hours to produce a Birkin bag. The stitch on which the brand’s reputation is based — the saddle — cannot be replicated by a machine; it takes two needles simultaneously passing through the same seam to produce a Birkin correctly. If done properly, the saddle stitch will never unravel — whether on a saddle or a Birkin.
‘Hermès is a maison that celebrates craftsmanship and material, especially leather, as a part of its history and heritage,’ explains Blanckaert. ‘“It” bags are created every season, but Birkins are trend-resistant — they will never go out of fashion.’
A limited edition turquoise togo & swift leather Ghillies Birkin 35 with palladium hardware, Hermès, 2014. Sold for €15,120 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s Online
Besides its durability, part of the Birkin’s allure is its timeless, all-purpose design. The bag was famously born out of a chance meeting between actress Jane Birkin and Jean-Louis Dumas, then creative director of Hermès, on a flight from Paris to London. And since its inception in 1983, the leather carry-all with flap closure has been a must-have for fashion stylists and A-list celebrities, whether they’re shopping for groceries or posing on the red carpet. Jennifer Lopez has even used hers as a gym bag.
‘Hermès is synonymous with elegance across generations,’ says Blanckaert. ‘The Birkin or Kelly that used to belong to your mother or grandmother still looks stylish today — as long as it’s in good condition.’
Those made with jewels and precious materials, such as ostrich and crocodile, tend to achieve the highest prices at auction. ‘Light pinks, yellows and blues also do well,’ adds Blanckaert, ‘as do the strong colours, such as Rouge Hermès, and special-order bags with bespoke colour pairings and the highly desirable horseshoe stamp.’
A custom matte Cactus and Malachite alligator Birkin 35 with gold hardware, Hermès, 2014. Sold for €25,200 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s Online
In recent years, the secondary market for Hermès has matured, expanding from a niche collecting category into an important luxury sector that draws buyers from all over the world. Christie’s, for instance, now sees participation from more than 50 countries in its Handbags & Accessories sales, with single-owner auctions taking place this year in Amsterdam for the first time.
‘It is the fastest-growing sector of the fashion industry, because collectors are now more concerned with sustainability and acquiring long-term investment pieces,’ says Blanckaert. ‘Buying at auction also offers collectors the chance to acquire discontinued pieces — and to bypass Hermès’s notorious waiting lists.’
Which, of course, drives auction prices up. In 2021, a Hermès Himalaya Diamond Kelly 28 became the most valuable handbag ever sold at auction when it achieved HK$4 million (US$515,416) at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
A Petit H silk La Vie du Grand Nord scarf and Vert Chartreuse Clémence leather bag with palladium hardware, Hermès, 2010s. Sold for €630 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s Online
In June 2022, 257 Hermès lots, including 48 Birkins and 24 Kellys, were offered in Inside the Orange Box: A Lifetime of Collecting, Property from an Important European Collector. Last October, a further 266 Hermès lots from the same single-owner collection were offered in Inside the Orange Box: Part II. Following the success of these two sales in Milan, Christie’s presents part three of this extraordinary single-owner collection in Amsterdam from 13 to 28 June 2023.
‘This encyclopaedic catalogue represents a lifetime of collecting by a passionate connoisseur of all things Hermès,’ says Blanckaert. ‘It is such a joyful collection, full of colour, poetry and fantasy.’
As well as featuring the most desirable styles from the past few decades, the collection also includes playful designs and objects that reveal a lesser-known side of the French maison.
‘People may be surprised by what they see,’ says Blanckaert. ‘This collector had a real sense of humour. She took risks by acquiring unique editions and pieces not instantly recognisable as Hermès.’
These include a whimsical selection of Sacs à Malices (which translates as ‘bags of tricks’), first introduced in the 1980s, and a range of quirky pieces from Petit H, the upcycling line created in 2010 by Pascale Mussard, which comprises unique or limited-edition objects, designs and shapes made from existing Hermès materials.
Of the Sac à Malice bags offered in Part I, Blanckaert was most taken by the white leather model with an ice-cream cone design and gold hardware. Offered in Part II were 12 more, including the dark grey leather model with a snowman design and gold hardware.
A rare, Petit H Jaune d’Or Clémence leather, shiny black crocodile and black fox-fur Kelly 28 with gold hardware, Hermès, 2015. Sold for €35,280 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s Online
As for Petit H, Blanckaert was drawn to a set of nine tools and an unusual fringed white Clémence leather bag with black polka dots from 2010. ‘You wouldn’t necessarily think this was by Hermès,’ she says, ‘which shows the collector’s confidence and sensitivity towards all aspects of Hermès’s creativity.’
Coming to Christie’s in June is a rare Petit H Jaune d’Or Clémence leather, shiny black crocodile and black fox-fur Kelly 28 with gold hardware from 2015 (above). Also offered is a unique 2010 denim and black Evercalf leather Shadow Birkin 40 with palladium hardware (below), customised by Petit H in collaboration with the collector.
‘Hermès was the first luxury brand to invest in the circular economy, so Petit H was very avant-garde at the time,’ says Blanckaert. ‘Petit H designs are bolder and less typically Hermès in style and structure.’
A unique, custom Petit H denim and black Evercalf leather Shadow Birkin 40 with palladium hardware, Hermès, 2010. Sold for €50,400 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s Online
Other highlights offered in Part III include a 2015 matte white Himalaya Niloticus crocodile Birkin 35 (below), one of the brand’s most highly coveted pieces; and a Fuchsia ostrich leather Retourné Kelly 32 with palladium hardware from 2006. Also in the sale is a selection of Hermès Birkin handbags in vibrant colours, including a matte Blue Paon alligator Birkin 35 (2017), a 2012 matte Geranium alligator Birkin 35 and a striking custom matte Cactus and Malachite alligator Birkin 35 from 2014.
A rare, matte white Himalaya Niloticus crocodile Birkin 35 with palladium hardware, Hermès, 2015. Sold for €94,500 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s Online
In addition to the handbags offered for sale in Part III, there is a diverse range of Hermès accessories, including bracelets, watches, notebooks, belts, silk scarves and Grigri Rodeo charms (below), which have been coveted by collectors since their launch.
A group of ten leather ‘Grigri Rodeo’ charms, Hermès. Sold for €3,276 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s Online
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‘With many of the lots estimated at or below €1,000, they offer new enthusiasts a way into the brand,’ says Blanckaert. ‘If you’re after your first bag, look to an Evelyne TPM in a rare, limited-release colourway and material.’