With records broken at auction and buyers clamouring for timeless brands, sales of rare and luxury handbags like the Kelly bag, inspired by princess Grace of Monaco, are hitting lofty new heights.

Words: Will Moffitt

When Meg Randell started selling handbags 10 years ago at a West London auction house, she was a solitary specialist in a niche category. “Almost nobody else was doing it,” Randell says. “Christie's had just started, but they didn't have a dedicated department. Almost no other auction house did.”

A decade on and many lucrative auctions later and luxury handbags are a serious business. As exemplified by auction houses hiring handbag specialists – Randell has been the European and UK head of designer handbags & fashion at Bonham’s since 2020 – a rare handbag can be as valuable as a rare painting. In fact, according to Art Market Research (AMR) bags from the likes of Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton can outperform art, classic cars and rare whiskies in terms of investment potential.

Big money bag sales invariably hit the headlines, sparking buyer interest and global attention. A case in point: Jane Birkin’s weathered Black Togo Birkin 35 which fetched £119,000 at Bonham’s in 2021.

The fact that Birkin had worn out the item only added to its allure. “It looked like it had been run over by a truck,” Randell recalls.

A leather Hermès tote bag immortalised by the late English-French actress and singer Jane Birkin, it remains to be seen whether the elegant icon’s passing will spike sales of her eponymous handbag.

“It's not going to completely change the market. They’re already highly desirable, but there's been more of a spotlight on it,” Randell says. “It does feel like every store at the moment is about Birkin and the Birkin bag.”

“I don't think so,” counters Cynthia Houlton, global head of fashion, Sotheby’s. “I think if she was the designer and worked with them directly on creating new versions of the bag, there would be an interest in the bags from her era, but she wasn't. She was the inspiration for the first bag.”

This summer Christie’s smashed records with several sales of rare handbags in an auction totalling $4.1 million, making it the highest-valued handbag sale ever staged in the Americas. The highest-sellinger was a rare Hermès Kellywood 22 crafted with beechwood and barenia leather that fetched $176,400 at auction.

A precursor to these landmark sales was the age of ‘the it bag’ in the early noughties. Powered by the likes of Louis Vuitton and Gucci, and their respective creative maestros Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford, handbags got cool and expensive very quickly. Then a couple of seasons later, they were worth very little. The trend persisted during the recession of 2008 even as luxury spending diminished.

“The Birkin and the Kelly continued to perform really well at auction. In fact, world records were broken during that period,” says Rachel Koffsky, head of handbag sales at Christie’s. “All of a sudden, smart and savvy shoppers started to realise that, like jewellery or art, it was really important to not only look at the primary market, but also the secondary market.”

Koffsky first noticed “a dramatic increase in the number of clients participating in our handbag sales” during an Elizabeth Taylor Louis Vuitton auction in 2010. “That's when we spun out and started holding handbags only online auctions.”

Since then auction houses have been hard at work educating consumers about the collectibility of handbags – Christie’s Handbag account has 57,000 followers – and social media has turned handbag lovers into ‘experts’ that opine on brands and bags to the masses. A stylish bonafide bag expert, Koffsky’s own Instagram account, rach1k, is a must for handbag aficionados.

For Houlton, the record prices paid at auction for rare and preowned bags are a direct result of price hikes in the primary market. “Luxury brands have very aggressively raised prices over the last 10 years and in the last five years prices for all luxury goods have gone up dramatically,” Houlton says. “A bag that was $1,000 in the 80s is worth $10,000 today. That drives recent secondary market prices higher.”

Along with London, Paris and Zurich, Monaco remains an important port of call for handbag lovers. Sotheby's has conducted several handbag private sale exhibits in the principality. “We have an audience of very high end buyers there. It’s a very important part of the market,” Houlton says. “In the summer, when everyone leaves Paris, they're in Monaco.”

Popularised by the inimitable American actress who was pictured clasping the bag on the cover of Life magazine in 1956 – the same year she became Princess of Monaco – it remains a timeless symbol; an enduring reminder that nobody did it better.

“It’s emblematic of her style and her enduring influence on the fashion world,” says Koffsky. “It's so lady-like, and that is what Princess Grace was. She was the ultimate lady in terms of style, sophistication and elegance.”