Hermès introduced the Birkin bag, a bag named after British actress Jane Birkin, in 1981. According to Caitlin Donovan, head of sales, handbags, and accessories at Christie’s, it was an immediate collectors’ item. But over the years, as its popularity has increased, so has its demand.
“The bag has become so synonymous with kind of this higher level of handbag collector,” says Donovan. “But over the past five years it’s really shifted to a status symbol as it's been talked about in songs, literature, and film.”
Just recently Quavo gave Saweetie two Birkin bags for her 26th birthday. Her reaction was spirited. As City Girls’ “Act Up” played in the background—a popular line from JT is “Big Birkin bag, hold five, six figures”—she jumps up and down and then drops into a split. Quavo sheepishly puts his hand over his face. But the reaction was for good reason. According to Donovan, the mint green Birkin bag is super rare and very valuable. She couldn’t identify what style the purple bag was and Hermès could not confirm.
It’s the Birkin Sellier, a very limited bag that was originally released as a 40 cm style in 2014, but rereleased this year in a smaller size. Birkins are limited, but a Birkin Sellier, a minimal style with exposed stitching made from Epsom leather, an embossed leather that’s easier to clean and maintains its shape over time, is even more rare. At retail it costs around $10-$12,000, but Donovan says on the resale market it can sell for up to $30,000.
We spoke to Donovan, who is currently holding a Summer in the City handbag sale at Christie’s through July 28, about why that bag is so special, how the Birkin bag’s popularity has affected its value, and if the pandemic has influenced demand for the bag.
Talk about the bags Saweetie received for her birthday from Quavo?
Well not only is she carrying Birkins, but she's carrying a really new Birkin, which is called the Sellier Birkin, which is really very cool and very beautiful. I believe it was released at the end of 2019 or early 2020 and it's different because Birkin bags are stitched from the inside out and then they're flipped so the seams are inside the bag, whereas Kelly bags can be made like that or there's another style, which is called the Sellier Kelly. A Kelly can be a Retourne style where it's stitched inside out and then flipped or it's the Sellier bag where the outside is cut and edge painted. That is a style which they've then created this new Birkin in. It's the Sellier Birkin.
It's really special, really limited edition, and really rare. When a limited edition bag comes out, a top client of Hermès will say, "I'm dying for this new bag.” Often times, they have to be put on waitlists and there's very few released. In order to get one is a big honor. Then that was why maybe also that bag was even more impressive.
How much is that bag on the secondary market?
I actually haven't sold one at Christie’s yet because they're so new, but I imagine if the bag sold for around $13,000, $14,000 USD and I'm guessing would be around the retail price at Hermès. I would not be surprised if we sold it for anywhere between $20,000 and $30,000 at auction.
What’s been happening with Hermès Birkin bags over the past few years in terms of value and demand?
I think there's a couple ways to look at it. As far as the secondary collecting handbag market is concerned, Hermès in particular, Birkin, yes, but just Hermès in general, is really the leader in that field. I always joke that we're the Handbags and Accessories department, not the Hermès department. There's really no other brand on the secondary market that sells for so much more than the primary market and has really grown into this established collectors’ class.
The Birkin and the Kelly are really the two primary sought after collectible handbags on the secondary handbag market. What I think is interesting about our market is that in the past people have said to me, “In the midst of a financial crisis are people still going to be buying handbags?”But we really saw a rise in this industry in 2008 when the market actually crashed. I think that luxury buyers still wanted to collect but they wanted to be smart about it. The idea of frivolous spending and buying a Balenciaga bag for $3,500 at Barneys and then selling it later for $300 or $400 is different. The idea of investing in something that was perhaps a little bit more expensive but would hold or appreciate in value seemed like, at the time of economic uncertainty, really the way to go.
Similarly, I would say that during this pandemic with economic uncertainty around the world, we've seen our luxury clients are still buying and they want to invest in things that will hold or appreciate and the Hermès Birkin bag is one of them.
The Birkin has become more popular and it’s mentioned in pop culture and rap songs. Does that impact anything?
For some clients it makes the bag more desirable and for some clients it makes the bag less desirable. I have some clients who say, "I bought Hermès because their dedication to crafts and to classic styles and color ways and technique is unparalleled and so I've really invested in these luxury pieces but when I started buying them it's because I thought they were so beautiful and I loved what they stood for and now when someone sees me walking down the street with a Birkin it means something entirely different."
There's a maybe wider audience that understands what a Birkin is and appreciates it but I would say a select audience doesn't want to carry a status symbol. They don't want to drive the flashy car. That wasn't why they had it in the first place.
Before the pandemic hit, had demand or desirability of the Birkin increased? Has it fluctuated over the years?
The Birkin has really stayed cemented. It came out in 1981 and from the moment it came out it was really one of the most sought after handbags in the world. I think it's become so synonymous with this higher level of handbag collector. But over the past five years it’s really shifted to a status symbol as it’s been talked about in songs, literature and fil. That shift happened over the past five years or so.
What has changed is that when I started in the industry about seven, eight years ago at Christie’s, people wanted those big bags because that was the trend. They wanted the 35 or 40 centimeter Birkin. Now clients are looking for the smaller pieces so the 25 and 30 centimeter Birkins. Even the newest size that Hermès has come out with is a 20 centimeter Birkin.
The Birkin was known for its wait list. Does that still exist?
They're still hard to come by. That's for sure. You can't just walk into a store and say, "I want a Birkin bag,” and walk out with exactly what you want. There definitely is a supply and demand issue and that is probably why there is such a strong secondary market. Also, during the pandemic the Hermès stores were closed so we had clients who said, "I've been waiting for this bag and now I don't know when the Hermès store is going to open so I'm just going to buy it from you."
What’s the process of buying a bag in store?
I don't really speak to primary market process because I don't work for Hermès, but I do know that clients that are established as an Hermès buyer, who have been buying bags for years, have a little more reach and access than new clients. I think that it's a process that only really Hermès can provide the answer to but you have to be an established client of the brand, whether that means you've bought other pieces at Hermès in order to become an established client.
I’m seeing a lot of customized Hermès bags. How does that impact the value of the bag?
For top clients, Hermès does offer customization options. Clients can work with sales people to pick colors and have them be bi-color, tri-color, sometimes have special hardware but obviously not customize them to the extent that you're seeing. What you're referring to is after market customization. Someone taking the bags and painting them like George Condo did for Kim Kardashian. We actually have a customized bag in our upcoming New York auction by Mr. Brainwash, the graffiti artist. He customized a Birkin bag. But it depends. I mean, technically, I price the bags lower if they've been customized unless they're customized by a famous artist like a George Condo or Mr. Brainwash. In that case it becomes an art piece and you have to look at the art market as well as the Hermès market.
For the other customized bags that are painted on or customized, I price them lower because the idea is you're kind of defacing it in some way. The customized bags are beautiful and cool and I love that they are one of a kind. But it’s important they aren’t taking away from the beauty of the Hermès bag.
We don't work directly with Hermès. But I think the reason we have a really nice relationship with them is because we're super respectful to that. So we lower the value for certain customizations. And we're very clear to say this was customized after market and then we let our clients do the bidding. If it's a really beautiful job sometimes our clients really want it and start competing for it and it ends up selling quite high.
What is the typical aftermarket markup on value on Hermès bags?
It's hard to answer that because it really depends on condition. It can depend on size, it can depend on color. Limited edition styles come in every season. Different colors come in every season. A brand new Birkin from the store that’s in pristine condition and never been used, I would estimate it retails between $12,000 and $13,000 in New York and often times it can sell anywhere from $15,000 to like I said, $25,000, $30,000. Whereas a bag that has some wear, we might price at $,8000 to $10,000 and it might sell for around $12,000, which is kind of the retail price but this is the secondary market. Scondition plays a huge role as well as age and I guess depending on what season and style.
How many limited edition bags does Hermès release?
It depends on the season. Sometimes they do a couple of limited edition pieces, sometimes they do a lot. Two seasons ago they came out with a Touch series where a number of the bags, Birkins and Kelly bags and some clutches that had a touch of exotic skin on them They've come out with bags where they have a pink alphabet on them, letter Kellys, and that was kind of a limited edition bag of the season. There was the season they came out with the Au Trot and the Au Galop and that was just different handles and some different color ways.
Has the pandemic impacted auctions at Christie’s?
There's been kind of a strength in the secondary market in some capacity that's maintained and I think that it's nice to see that we have a still strong and educated group of these global collectors. I couldn't predicted that it stayed as stable as it did but we were happy to see that it did.