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Know Your Hermès: A Collector’s Guide to the Iconic Accessories

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Handmade and finely crafted in France, all Hermès bags are special but some occupy a higher plane. On June 12, Christie’s London is holding a handbag sale featuring the bag world’s most elite specimens.

As well as Chanel runway totes and Louis Vuitton trunks, over 300 Hermès bags are offered for sale with estimates ranging from £1,000 (SAR/AED 4,923) for a clutch to £150,000 (SAR/AED 738,000) for a diamond-encrusted Birkin. “It’s the only female-centric collecting category at Christie’s,” explains Rachael Koffsky, Christie’s specialist in handbags and accessories. Handbags are the fastest growing area for the auction house, which puts together six international sales every year, and most of the buyers and sellers in this area are women. These serious collectors know every nuance of the Hermès catalogue. Rare color ways, unique hardware, a discontinued size or one-of-a-kind detailing can be the difference between a bag achieving a good price or a world-record-breaking sum. “We call them Unicorns,” says Koffsky of the most rare pieces.

The current world record for a handbag at auction is £253,700 (SAR/AED 1.2 million), for a white Himalaya Birkin with solid gold hardware encrusted with 10.5 karats of diamonds. It was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2017. The same style is featured in today’s sale but Christie’s only expect it to reach a European, not world, record price because it has been used.

Ten years ago a prized lot might have been a classic black Kelly in the most popular 28 or 32 sizes, but tastes have evolved. Now collectors vie for the most unique or unusual bag. So what should the savvy investor look out for?

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Be Exceptional

At the apex of the Hermès triangle is its Exceptional range; a term the brand uses to describe its very top-tier bags made with solid gold hardware and studded with precious stones. The world-record-breaking Himalaya Birkin is in this category and there are eight Exceptional bags going under the hammer today. You cannot go into a store and buy an Exceptional bag off the shelf – they are only made available to top customers. Exceptional bags often have the most unique detailing, colouration or hardware because, at this level, Hermès customers demand individuality.

The Sky High Himalaya Price

What makes this bag so expensive? The craft that goes into making it (it’s the most time-consuming of all Hermès Birkin bags) and its rarity (it’s produced in the most limited numbers and only three have ever come up at auction.) Named because the color gradation evokes the snow capped Himalayas, the white color is achieved by the Hermès craftsmen who painstakingly strip away the pigment until the crocodile skin achieves the desired shade. As well as the white diamond-studded Himalaya, today’s sale also features a Himalaya in a rare grey colorway with palladium hardware.

Make It Metallic

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In 2005 Hermès used a specific metallic chévre leather for one season only. For that reason, any bag in this metallic finish fetches fantastical prices. A metallic chevré leather Birkin bought new in 2005 for less than €10,000 (SAR/AED 43,000) sold at Christie’s in Hong Kong in November 2017 for €100,000 (SAR/AED 433,000). Today’s sale features a metallic Constance from 2005, which is expected to reach a top price.

Hardware Heaven

One of the star lots in the sale is an Exceptional shiny brown porosus (saltwater) crocodile Birkin with yellow sapphire-studded hardware. What makes this piece so very rare is the jewels. Typically, Hermès only use white diamonds to embellish the hardware on its bags. Whoever ordered this one (it was originally bought through the Madison Avenue store in New York) must have had some serious clout with the brand to persuade them to deviate in such a way. A special horseshoe stamp on a bag denotes a special order.

So Solid Crew

The color and material used for hardware has a major impact on a bag’s price. Up for auction is an Exceptional dark green crocodile Birkin that has solid yellow gold hardware. This gives it magical unicorn status as Hermès typically uses white gold.

Size Queen

The Kelly 20 is highly prized. The number refers to the size, which sits in-between a mini and the most popular 28 and 32 sizes. Hermès stopped making the Kelly 20 over 15 years ago. The company does make a bag called the Kelly 20 II, but the proportions of this newer style are very different to the daintier Kelly 20. For this reason, and the fact that you can’t buy this size anymore, it has become a collector’s item.

Colour Counts

True Hermès collectors are fluent in the color catalogue and are constantly on the look out for rare shades. Pinks (Rose Confetti, Rose Sakura) and blues (Bleu Saphir) command the highest prices. The classic Hermès red Rouge H is also highly desirable. Christie’s organizes its handbag sales by color as collectors are so attuned to the variations of different shades.

Priceless Artwork

One of the most interesting bags to come to auction is a vintage Kelly, painted white and emblazoned with the iconic NASA worm-script logo by the artist Tom Sachs. Blurring the line between a bag and a sculpture, the piece was originally commissioned by Dasha Zuchova and sold at a charity auction to Larry Gagosian who kept it on a plinth. In recent years, it’s become fashionable for the Hermès customers who has everything to commission an artist to paint their bags. Kim Kardashian has a Birkin painted by George Condo. She also has another Birkin painted by her daughter, North West. Christie’s line on this is that bags painted by the kind of A-list artists they would represent in the saleroom are desirable, but anyone else’s scribblings are not (sorry North West).

Not All Crocodiles Are Born Equal

Hermès uses Nile crocodiles (Niloticus) and Australian saltwater crocodiles (Porosus). The Aussie ones are considered to have the edge in terms of the evenness and size of the scales. Hermès stamps its crocodile Porosus bags with a circumflex (^) near to the Hermès logo, the Crocodile Niloticus has an umlaut stamp (¨). The auction also features a crocodile bag made from an albino crocodile. Unlike the Himalaya, which has the pigment stripped away, this leather is the croc’s natural color.

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This article originally appeared on Vogue UK. 

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