The Birkin: bags of style and a sound investment
The Hermès handbag sketched by English actor Jane Birkin more than holds its value
Jane Birkin with her husband Serge Gainsbourg in London’s Berwick Street, April 1977
An auction of handbags and accessories at Christie's in London saw a new European record set for an Hermès bag in December. The €260,899 hammer price for the 2010 Birkin Himalaya model – encrusted with diamonds with platinum hardware – beat the previous record, set in June 2018, for a similar bag from 2008, which attained €183,950. The world record for a pre-owned Birkin bag was set in 2017 in Hong Kong, when a buyer paid €333,156 following a 10 minute bidding frenzy.
For some, the Birkin bag is synonymous with status and success (Victoria Beckham is believed to have more than 100 in her collection). For others it is symbol of avarice. Rosmah Mansor, the wife of disgraced ex-Malaysian-prime minister Najib Razak, is now referred to as the Imelda Marcos of handbags. According to the Malaysian edition of Business Insider, an estimated 272 Hermès bags in her collection of 567 bags - with a total estimated value of €11.5 million – were seized by authorities during a money laundering investigation (for which she has since been convicted).
Created in 1981, the bag is named after bohemian English actor and model Jane Birkin, famed for toting wicker baskets around Paris – sourced for £5 apiece on London’s Portobello Road.
The story goes that one night before she was due to take a flight, her then partner Jacques Doillon drove over her basket in a fit of rage stating,“It’s terrible for you to be known for your object”. On the flight the following day she happened to be seated beside Hermes chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas. Dumas asked Birkin what her ideal handbag would look like and using a pen and a sick bag as paper, the concept of the Hermès Birkin was born.
Birkin receives an annual royalty of around €30,000 from Hermes – which she donates to charity and according to a recent interview, she stated that she only ever has one bag at a time, which she then auctions off to charity on receipt of a replacement.
In 2015, she asked the brand to “de-baptise” the Birkin Crocodile bags until better practices in the treatment of alligators and crocodiles were implemented. The organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) states it takes almost two young animals to make each bag, which along with lizard and ostrich pelts are the most expensive items. The company appeared to comply with her wishes as she dropped the request later in the year.
Better than gold
Prices for a Birkin bag start at about €8,000 depending on the model, pelt and hardware. The most costly bag ever produced in the Birkin range was one embellished by Japanese designer Ginza Tanaka at an estimated cost of around €1.68 million. Its composition entirely of platinum with over 2,000 diamonds was obviously a contributor to the hefty price tag.
Most interesting though have been recent reports featured in the Guardian, Fortune and Time suggesting that Birkins are in fact a good investment when compared with returns from gold or stock market investments.
Citing research by Baghunter. com; an online marketplace for buying and selling handbags, the Birkin bag outperformed both the S&P 500 (the American stock market index) and the price of gold in the last 35 years – a time period chosen to reflect the date when Birkin bags were first produced in 1981. They state that the annual return on a Birkin was 14.2 per cent, compared with the S&P average of 8.7 per cent a year and gold at -1.5 per cent.
Birkin bags are sold in Ireland through the Hermès concession boutique in Brown Thomas, but their arrival in the shop is “infrequent and without notice” according to Hermes spokeswoman Hannah George. Hermès recommend that customers in search of a Birkin bag “visit other Hermès stores for availability”, and due to the high demand the company does not take requests from customers at the Irish store.
Hermès operates an international waiting list for a Birkin, sometimes as long as six years, no doubt adding to its exclusivity and desirability as a collector’s item.
Siopa Ella, the pre-owned designer store based in Temple Bar, has sold 13 Birkin bags in the past eight years. “The last one we sold was this December,” says owner Ella de Guzman. “It was a 2017 model, which normally retails for about €8,000, and fetched €14,450. The reason is that demand is so high, some people do not want to wait years on a waiting list, so are willing to pay a premium. Most of the Birkin bags we sell are sourced outside of Ireland and sold to an international customer base.”
According to Niall Dolan of Dolan’s Auction house in Galway, “having handbags such as Hermès, Gucci and Chanel included in our auctions always creates significant interest from people who otherwise would not attend our auctions, and they generally tend to be in excellent condition.” The auction house sold an Hermès bag (not a Birkin model) at a sale in 2018 for €4,000; the estimate was €2,800.
For James O’Halloran of Adam’s on St Stephen’s Green, “there is very little stock of handbags of this calibre in Ireland and we would not get involved in selling one without all the documentation and would not recommend anyone buying one unless they are absolutely certain that the item is genuine”. Adam’s sold an Hermès Pullman model from the 1930s in 2011 for €4,000 – the estimate for the handbag was €1,500.