A hush took hold of the saleroom in Christie’s just as the star of the show came into view. It was the auction house’s first handbag and accessories auction in New York, and on the block was a 32-centimeter Hermès Himalaya Nilo Crocodile Kelly bag with palladium hardware.
Christie’s associate specialist for handbags and accessories Rachel Koffsky had described it to me as “the chicest bag in the world.” Estimated to sell for between $60,000 to $70,000, the bag was one of the most expensive listed in the auction.
The price started at $50,000 and rose quickly, bouncing up to $75,000 offered by a man chatting quietly on the phone and raising his paddle surreptitiously. Despite making higher bids, he was not to win; a pair of men seated at the back of the room won it for an astounding $93,750.
Though the Himalaya Kelly ended up selling for the highest price of all of the 223 handbags at the December Christie’s auction, its price didn’t even touch that of the most expensive bag ever sold. That honor belongs to a fuscia Hermès Birkin bag, which sold to an anonymous buyer for $223,000 at Christie’s Hong Kong auction in June.
Handbags, it seems, are the new art. Or at least, they have been elevated to be on par with collectible pieces. More accessible and practical than precious jewelry, these bags are increasingly investments as much as they are status symbols.
Whitney Mash, an administrator in handbags and accessories at Christie’s, told me that some women purchased handbags at Hermès for this sale and brought them directly to the auction house, anticipating making a pretty penny.
The less expensive way to get a bag is to buy it directly from Hermès, but there is a waitlist unless you are a celebrity or well-connected. To buy a handbag through Christie’s, all you need is cash.
In addition to the Himalaya Kelly bag (so named because of the dyed pattern on the crocodile leather), the December sale also included a good number of the popular Birkin bags from Hermès, as well as pieces from Chanel and Judith Leiber. The least expensive item was a Judith Leiber clutch, which went for a more modest $625. In Koffsky’s words, “there’s a piece in the sale for everyone.”
Koffsky also pointed out that handbags are the only category at Christie’s where women are the predominant buyers. Men often purchase jewelry for the women in their lives, and are the majority of buyers of fine art and wines.
She credits the renewed interest in classic bags to the 2008 recession, when women rejected trendy bags that would quickly seem dated. A Birkin, on the other hand, is always fashionable. “It’s an ‘it’ bag that doesn’t go out of style,” she said.