Making a case for luggage
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
There's money in old suitcases. But it's often not the case itself that's valuable - it's what's hidden inside it.
For an older generation, the suitcase on top of the wardrobe was a canny hiding place. Unlike a safe, it wouldn't attract thieves. And it was a bit less obvious than under the mattress.
The trouble is, the old folks frequently forget to mention this to their next of kin. "Any auctioneer in the country will tell you that people hide things that are dear to them in old suitcases - and half the time their relatives throw them away before we even get there," says Ross O'Súilleabháin of Herman & Wilkinson Auctioneers.
House clearance auctions usually follow a bereavement and, on many an occasion, O'Súilleabháin has arrived at the house to find the relatives of the deceased helpfully tipping old suitcases into a skip.
"Have you checked inside those cases?" he asks.
They assure him that the suitcases are full of old clothes.
"Yes," says the auctioneer. "But did you go through the clothes?"
Once, O'Súilleabháin found a sizeable collection of old money inside a discarded suitcase. It went on to make a considerable sum at auction. He's also found engagement rings and other jewellery.
The suitcases themselves, though, are rarely hugely valuable. "Vintage suitcases sell in our weekly sales for between €10 and €400, depending on type and condition," says O'Súilleabháin. "The best ones were individually made by artisan leather workers in Cork or Dublin - you'd never get that quality now!"
There's also a collectors' market for luggage labels - the paper stickers that people attached to suitcases as a souvenir of their journey. "It was like stamping your passport," O'Súilleabháin explains. Collectors will often buy an old suitcase for its labels alone, so don't remove them, and do check inside the suitcase for extra labels on the interior. These may add to the value of the case.
Luggage labels capture the romance of travelling in the days before cut-price airlines. Gaston-Louis Vuitton (1883-1970), the grandson of the legendary designer Louis Vuitton, collected thousands. "What do we find on old luggage?" Gaston-Louis wrote. "We find the traces of... the places visited. We will follow these, and with them, we will tour the world, not in 80 days like Phileas Fogg, but much faster still."
The most valuable suitcases are those made by well-known makers: Goyard, Finnegans of London and Manchester, Hermès, and especially Louis Vuitton, the originator of stylish luggage.
Vuitton was the personal box-maker and packer of Eugenie de Montijo, Empress of France and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and in 1854, he opened his own box-making and packing workshop, Maison Louis Vuitton, in Paris.
Soon, he was making stackable, flat-topped steamer trunks - lightweight, airtight and stylish.
Other companies started copying the designs almost at once. When Louis died in 1892, his son Georges Vuitton took over the business and soon distinguished the brand with the now-famous Louis Vuitton monogram pattern. The link between identity and style was reinforced through advertising: "Show me your luggage and I'll tell you who you are," a 1920s slogan proclaimed. Luggage had become a status symbol.
A less edifying episode follows. According to research carried out by the French journalist Stephanie Bonvicini, it seems that Louis Vuitton collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. In Louis Vuitton, A French Saga (2004), Bonvicini claims that the company, then under Gaston-Louis Vuitton, profited from business deals with the Germans, supported the Vichy government and even produced 2,500 busts of its leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain. The company hasn't denied these claims (but it doesn't seem too keen on them either).
Vintage Louis Vuitton luggage is wonderful stuff and, in good condition, can be worth thousands. A 1930s Louis Vuitton stencil monogram double wardrobe steamer trunk (est €3,000 to €5,000) is coming up for auction in Adam's At Home sale on February 26. From the outside, it looks like a standard rectangular trunk. Open it up and it reveals six fitted drawers to the right and an extending hanging compartment to the left, complete with the original stamped hangers.
"It was made for a time when people had servants and porters," says Stuart Cole of Adam's. "You couldn't just carry it around with you. It was designed to look after your things and be carried by somebody else." A second piece of vintage Louis Vuitton luggage in the sale, a tan leather "Malle" suitcase with a stamped fitted lock and leather-wrapped carrying handle, is estimated to sell for between €300 and €500. Like the trunk, it's a lovely piece of luggage. Just don't mention the war.
The weekly sale at Herman & Wilkinson takes place on Thursdays at 10am with viewing between 2pm-6pm Wednesdays (hermanwilkinson.ie). Adam's At Home sale takes place on Sunday February 26 at 2pm (adams.ie).
In the salerooms
ANTIQUES AND VINTAGE FAIRS
A large antique and vintage fair run by Hibernian Antique Fairs will take place in Dublin's Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, on Saturday and Sunday.
The fair promises at least 40 stands. This is the third time Robin O'Donnell has brought an event of this scale to Dublin. "It's a fair that will have a bit of everything, from fine art right down along the line to vintage - it's basically the same as my National Antiques Fair in Limerick," he says.
For Dublin buyers, it represents a chance to connect with interesting dealers from around the country, many of whom rarely venture to fairs in the capital. The dealers include: Gerd & Helmut Peters from Germany who sell high-end diamonds and jewellery; Brian Hurley of Fort Hill Antiques, Kinsale; provincial Irish silver and jewellery from J W Weldon (IADA); jewellery and silver from Marie Curran (IADA); furniture from Greene's Antiques of Drogheda (IADA); and high-end vintage fashion from Eily Henry. The fair will run from 11am-6pm and admission is €3.50 (children free). The entry price includes a raffle ticket.
Fans of the Audrey Hepburn movie 'Breakfast At Tiffany's' (1961) will understand the lure of bright and sparkly things from the glamorous jewellery shop.
There's a chance to indulge the fantasy at the next auction of fine jewellery and silver at John Weldon Auctioneers, which takes place on Tuesday, February 21 at 2pm.
The sale's highlights include a Tiffany & Co diamond ring in its Tiffany box and with paper work that states the diamond is a Lucida cut-cornered rectangular mixed-cut diamond weighting 0.74cts, E colour and VS1 clarity, flanked by two triangular brilliant cut diamonds weighting 0.15cts total F-G colour range, VVS-Vs clarity range. The ring was valued at $11,000 in 2007, sold at Tiffany & Co, Fifth Avenue, New York for $12,030 (including sale tax) and is now estimated to sell between €2,000 and €3,000.
The sale also includes a fine diamond three-stone ring (est €3,500 to €4,500), valued by James S O'Connor of Harold's Cross at €13,400 in 2006, and a fine diamond three-stone ring set in 18ct gold (€500-€800), valued at €2,000 by Paul Sheeran in 1988. See jwa.ie.
There are plenty of unusual and interesting items in the next auction of fine jewellery, watches and silver at O'Reilly's of Francis Street, which takes place on Wednesday, February 22 at 1pm.
Amid several engaging pieces set with aquamarines, an aquamarine and diamond cluster ring, mounted on platinum (est €2,000 to €3,000) and an Edwardian aquamarine and seed pearl floral fringe pendant on trace link chain (above) in 14ct gold (est €1,700 to €2,000) stand out, as does an onyx and diamond ring, with black and white diamonds, mounted on 18ct white gold (est €1,000 to €1,300).
There are also several diamond rings, including an Art Deco three-stone diamond ring (est €2,000 to €2,500).