No bag is as coveted at auction as the Hermès Birkin. ‘For handbag collectors, they are the ultimate status symbol,’ says vintage fashion expert and specialist 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 house 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.’
Besides its durability, part of the Birkin’s allure is its timeless, all-purpose design. Since its inception in 1983 — 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 plane from Paris to London — the leather carry-all with flap closure has been a must-have for fashion stylists and A-list celebrities doing everything from grocery shopping to 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.’
In recent years, the secondary market for Hermès has matured, expanding from a niche collecting category to an important luxury market 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 both Paris and Milan 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. Last year, 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.
This month, 257 Hermès lots, including 48 Birkins and 24 Kellys, are being offered in Inside the Orange Box: A Lifetime of Collecting (until 23 June) — the largest and most diverse single-owner collection of Hermès handbags, accessories, homewares, textiles, jewellery and watches ever to come to auction.
‘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 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, pointing to a selection of pieces she has never previously encountered. ‘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 in the sale, Blanckaert is most taken by the white leather model with an ice-cream cone design and gold hardware (above). ‘Looking at it just makes me smile,’ she says. ‘But I also really like the limited-edition model with the French flag, produced in 1989 to celebrate the bicentenary of the French Revolution.’
As for Petit H, Blanckaert admires the set of six games (above), the three storage boxes, and an unusual fringed white leather Clémence 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.’
She also picks out the 2010 denim and black Evercalf leather Shadow Birkin 40 (below), which was 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,’ she says. ‘Petit H designs are bolder and less typically Hermès in style and structure.’
Other highlights include a limited-edition Barénia and Wicker Picnic Farming bag and an Osier Picnic Kelly 35 (below), first seen in 2011 as part of the Spring/Summer collection by Jean Paul Gaultier.
‘The delicate nature of osier, or wicker, means it is used by only the most skilled artisans,’ explains Blanckaert. ‘As the first of this collection, the Picnic Kelly continues to be highly sought-after.’
Also worthy of note is the 2013 limited-edition Barénia leather and toile Ghillies Birkin 35, with decorative trim inspired by the ‘broguing’ on Scottish men’s dress shoes. Blanckaert is also drawn to the limited-edition H Gulliver leather Quelle Idole bag for its ‘charming smile’, and the custom bamboo, malachite and ultra violet Togo leather Retourné Kelly (2016) for ‘its magic combination of colours’.
In addition to the 145 handbags offered for sale, there is a diverse range of Hermès accessories, including bracelets, belts, wallets and Grigri Rodeo charms (below), which have been coveted by collectors since their launch.
Among the other lots coming to auction is a significant collection of Hermès silk scarves, including editions from such acclaimed collaborations as Hermès x Comme des Garçons and Hermès x Colette J’Aime Mon Carré.
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‘With many of the silk scarf sets estimated at or below €1,000, they offer new enthusiasts a way into the brand,’ says Blanckaert. ‘You can tie them around your neck or around the handle of your bag like this collector used to. Or, if you’re after your first bag, look to an Evelyne TPM bag in a rare and limited colourway and material.’