Treasures: Getting a handle on secure investments
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
Back in the early 1980s, the actress Jane Birkin was on a flight to London when she spilled the contents of her handbag. As she gathered her belongings, the passenger in the next seat suggested that she should have a bag with pockets.
She replied, presumably with gritted teeth, that when Hermès made a bag with pockets, she'd have that one. The man then announced himself as Jean-Louis Dumas, creative director of Hermès and the pair spent the rest of the flight designing Birkin's ideal handbag.
According to Caitlin Donovan, handbag specialist at Christie's in New York, the original design was sketched on the back of a sick bag.
Now, the Hermès Birkin holds the record for the most expensive handbag ever sold at auction. This May, a matte-white crocodile skin Birkin 30 with 18k white gold and diamond hardware sold for HKD 2,940,000 (€318,497) at Christie's, Hong Kong. On November 29, the same auction house is selling another, similarly diamond-encrusted crocodile skin Hermès Birkin handbag (est €162,910 to €217,213).
Handbags can be a serious investment. In January 2016, the online marketplace Baghunter published a study compared three different types of investments: the S&P 500 (an index that reflects the stock market); gold; and Hermès Birkin handbags. The research concluded that the handbags are by far the safest investment of the three as they're not subject to fluctuations in the market.
Successful investment in anything requires knowledge, skill, and a keen investor's instinct. These qualities are rare. So are Hermès Birkin handbags. You can't just rock up and buy one. Only a few are made each year and there's a six-year waiting list. It also helps to be a valued Hermès customer.
"Connections must be made and brand loyalty displayed before a Birkin is offered," wrote Colleen Kane in an article for Fortune on June 23, 2015. "Or, if you have double the retail price to burn, you can hire someone else to source a bag."
Handbag collecting combines luxurious objects with glamour, exclusivity, and a cloak-and-dagger aspect. It's all very exciting. According to Monika Arora, founder of the online handbag boutique PurseBop, every serious aficionado has a Holy Grail Handbag (HGB). If your objective is to make money, the Financial Times (November 17, 2016) concluded that the best investment handbag was the Chanel 2.55 Medium Classic Flap Bag, which rose in value by more than 230pc between 2004 and 2016.
Paddy Coughlan of Designer Exchange, a shop that both buys and sells designer handbags, agrees that the Chanel Flap is a good investment. "If you'd bought one for €1,800 12 years ago, it would now be worth around €4,480," he says. "We've had people buy one and sell it back to us a few years later. We've actually paid them to use it!"
There are also good returns on older handbags. Coughlan recalls a young woman who recently brought her grandmother's vintage handbags into the shop. The old lady knew that the handbags were valuable. She'd been given them by her husband, who was a diplomat, in 1968 and she'd kept them very carefully. Before she died, she showed her granddaughter the collection.
"I'd like you to have these," she said. "But I know you're not that keen on handbags. Keep them if you want to. If you don't, they'll help put you through college."
The collection included a Hermès Kelly in box leather. It's a design that rose to fame in 1956 when Princess Grace used her Hermès handbag to conceal her pregnancy from the paparazzi. So many people demanded a "Kelly bag" that the handbag was named in her honour. There was also a Hermès Constance.
"The Kelly bag sold for €4,000 and the Constance for €3,000," says Coughlan. In both cases, the story behind these particular handbags was part of the appeal. "When people buy a vintage handbag they're also buying an experience." The grandmother's collection also included an Irish-made Beverly handbag. The factory was started by Hans Hautz who fled Nazi Germany and moved to Bray, Co Wicklow. He produced leatherwork but, seeing the potential for handbags, sent his Irish workers back to Germany to be trained by master craftsmen. Beverly bags became internationally famous. In 1960s and 1970s Ireland, "anybody who was anybody" had one.Now, a vintage Beverly could be worth up to €500.
All the bags at Designer Exchange come with a certificate of authenticity. "When someone brings in a handbag, I assume that it's a fake," Coughlan says. "It has to prove itself. But I'd be lying if I said that I'd never been taken in."
Plausible knock-offs are widespread but not everyone wants the genuine article. Some collectors will only buy fakes. There's a side-splitting episode of the American comedy television series, Broad City (Knockoffs, 2015) when Ilana and her mother Bobbi go in search of counterfeit bags. "We bring our own blindfolds, thank you," says Bobbi, as they are bundled into an unmarked van. Another time, they caught pinkeye from dodgy blindfolds. Knockoff handbags are illegal. For collectors, this is part of the thrill. Just bring your own blindfolds.
See christies.com and designerexchange.ie
In the Salerooms
'Tis the season for popping the question and there's a pretty selection of rings on offer at John Weldon Auctioneers on November 28 at 2pm. They include a diamond and ruby cluster ring, (est €4,000 to €5,000) and a diamond and emerald cluster ring set in 18ct gold (est €3,500 to €4,500). See jwa.ie. Adam's sale of Fine Jewellery and Watches takes place on December 5 at 6pm with an array of finery including several 1950s pieces by Sterlé: a fern-shaped gold brooch (est €3,500 to €4,500) and a gold and diamond evening clutch bag (est €10,000 to €12,000). See adams.ie.
Dolan's autumn Limerick Auction of Art & Antiques takes place at the Castletroy Park Hotel, Limerick, this Sunday at 2pm. Paintings in the sale include works by Arthur K Maderson and Henry Morgan, as well as an engaging selection of antique toys. See dolansart.com.
Morgan O'Driscoll's Irish & International Art Auction takes place at the RHA, Dublin, on December 4 at 6pm. The ensemble ranges from Paul Henry's The Village in the Bog (est €60,000 to €80,000) to Mother and Child from Cowboys and Indians (est €15,000 to €25,000) by Andy Warhol. See morganodriscoll.com. Also on December 4, Mullen's of Laurel Park Bray, will hold an auction of Antiques & Interiors (at 11am), and Irish and International Art (6pm) with work by Brian Palm, who makes detailed models of ships displayed in illuminated wooden boxes. See mullenslaurelpark.com
Whyte's sale of Important Irish Art takes place on Monday at 6pm at the RDS, Anglesea Road, Ballsbridge. Potential lots include Evening, Montreux by Sir John Lavery (€80,000 to €100,000), but the sale also includes eight works by the late Basil Blackshaw and the jaunty Italian with Fowl (€50,000 to €70,000) by Gerard Dillon.
On December 11, Whyte's will conduct a Christmas sale in the Freemasons' Hall, Molesworth Street at 6pm. Giftable items range from an 18th-century Irish gold pocket watch (est €2,500 to €3,000) to a poster from the 1966 comedy Carry on Cowboy (above, est €500 to €700). See whytes.ie