Collector Handbags: Birkin Basics
What can be red or black, shiny or matte, and fulfill a wish large or small? Luxury handbags can be all of the above. According to the 2023 Knight Frank Wealth Report, luxury handbags have seen a 74% price increase over a decade, and 15% in the past twelve months.1 The global luxury handbag market is a multi-billion dollar business, though exact numbers are difficult to pin down as the definition can be broad or narrow.2
Undisputed, however, is the position Hermès Birkin bags hold as the most desirable and expensive accessories in the world, ranging anywhere from $9,000 to $500,000. Sales in 2023 have started strong. Billionaire Joseph Lau sold dozens of handbags, mostly Hermès, in a February sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong that garnered more than $3 million. The most expensive lot was a 2006 Bleu Jean Shiny Porosus Crocodile Birkin 25 with 18K white gold and diamond hardware that sold for close to $200,000 (HK$1.52mil).3
Kate Molet, Senior Director of Appraisals and Handbag Specialist at The Fine Art Group, explains why Birkins are sold by the same auction houses that sell Basquiats,
“I was watching an old “Sex and the City” episode and a character wanted to purchase a Red Birkin for the $4,000 price, but was told there is a five year waiting period. That’s why auction houses and secondary markets are so popular for Birkins, because clients don’t want to wait.”4
Birkin bags, like Cristal Champagne and vintage Ferraris, are luxury objects that embody the height of craft, design, status and artisanal heritage, thereby transcending just their functional allure. How did this come about?
A Heritage History
Thierry Hermès was a harness maker who began his business in 1837. Within a short time, his made-to-measure harnesses and saddles achieved renown throughout Europe. Today, Hermès remains a family held company with global reach, and still creates equine riding equipment. However, handbags with international waiting lists are now among the most desired objects from this historical leather goods company. Specifically, the Hermès Birkin Bag is the most iconic item produced by the 185-year-old leather luxury goods company.
Thierry Hermès was a harness maker who began his business in 1837. Within a short time, his made-to-measure harnesses and saddles achieved renown throughout Europe. Today, Hermès remains a family held company with global reach, and still creates equine riding equipment.
However, handbags with international waiting lists are now among the most desired objects from this historical leather goods company. Specifically, the Hermès Birkin Bag is the most iconic item produced by the 185-year-old leather luxury goods company.
An Hermès Black Togo Birkin 35 personally owned by its namesake sold for over $110,000 at Bonhams Designer Handbags and Fashion sale in 2021. Birkin, who passed away in July 2023, had sold all five of the Hermès bags she had been gifted to raise money for charities during her lifetime. 5
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 correctly, the saddle stitch will never unravel—either on a saddle or a Birkin. 6
The bags are hand-made in France from luxury and exotic leathers (e.g., alligator, ostrich, python), and produced in limited quantity. Every bag is stamped with a code that identifies its year of creation, the workshop in which it was made, and the artisan who made it.7
Hardware is plated gold or palladium as both metals resists tarnishing. The size of the bag is referred to by the number after the name, so a Birkin 25 refers to the 25 centimeter base length of the bag.
Birkins are offered in a rainbow of colors and leathers, and even canvas. Some shades are part of the Hermès canon, including Rouge Hermès, known as Rouge H, and have been collector staples for half a century.8
Hermès strictly controls the number of Birkin bags produced, so that demand for these luxurious bags exceeds their availability. Therefore, a Birkin bag in excellent condition can retain and sometimes exceeds its purchase price, depending on the leather, the color, the size of the bag, and the hardware.
Navigating Supply, Demand, and Quality
One of the rarest Birkin bags is the Himalaya edition – named because the delicate graduation of color from smoky grey fading to pearly white mimics the majestic snow-capped Himalayan mountains. The process to achieve these subtle colored hues is difficult, hence the price and desirability.
In 2022, a Himalaya Birkin (similar to the one pictured above), with pavé diamonds inlaid on the 18k white gold padlock and other hardware, sold for $450,000.9
Elizabeth Pamboukian, Luxury Goods Specialist at Madison Avenue Couture notes,
“The Hermès Himalaya Birkin 25 with diamond hardware is the ultimate investment bag, nearly doubling in price in the secondary market.”
“As the most desirable bag in the world, handbag collectors appreciate the storied artistry and traditional craftsmanship behind the Himalaya Birkin. In response to the demand, Hermès began to craft limited numbers of the Himalaya Kelly for top VIP clients making this bag one of the rarest in the world.” 10
The “Kelly” bags are named after Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco, and are also collectible bags on par with Birkins. Email correspondence with the author Sept 2023.
Molets elaborates on the complexities of the market. “Yes, Himalayans get all the publicity, and record prices, but there are fewer of them. Black Birkins are consistently desirable, and at roughly $10,000 to $20,000 a bag, this classic color along with neutrals like taupe, sell consistently on the secondary market. Passionate collectors often have an “everyday” bag, usually 37cm and larger, made of a heartier leather, and collectible bags that are often not even used.”
For artwork and collectible luxury handbags, condition is king. If you read about collectible or investment Birkins, those handbags are not worn, but rather treated as sculptural objects. Luxury handbags come with a dust bag to protect the materials from air particles and contact with other objects. Hard bags are made of stiff materials, and whether the material is leather or canvas, the bag should be positioned upright, just like equestrian shoes. You can use air filler pockets to fill out the interiors.
The storage environment is also critical. Quinn Bradley, Director of Operations at Garde Robe by UOVO notes,
“It is important to store luxury handbags in an environment with temperature and humidity controls to ensure leathers remain supple and colors do not fade over time.”
“Proper padding and packing will preserve the shape of the bag while not in use. Storing and preserving your wardrobe and accessories also means the items will be in great condition to pass down to relatives or friends, or to resell at a later time.” 11
If you want to display your collectible handbag, consider getting customized shelving. Perhaps take some inspiration from the popular Canadian singer Drake, who in a recent issue of Architectural Digest revealed the range of his collecting interests, including Birkin bags displayed in his walk-in closet. 12
Katja Zigerlig is Vice President, Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).