With multi-million-dollar price tags separating everyday art connoisseurs from those coveted masterpieces on the auction block, a new generation of collectors—particularly women—are looking to handbags.
Amid a technicolor spectrum of clutches, satchels, and totes at the Christie’s showroom in Rockefeller Center, Caitlin Donovan, Handbags specialist and Head of Sales at Christie’s New York, explains that handbags are essentially “wearable works of art.” Donovan helms one of Christie’s fastest-growing auction categories, not to mention the only female-centric collecting department.
“We’re the only department in which women [constitute] the majority of buyers,” Donovan tells Culture Trip. “Obviously many women collect art, watches, wine, rare books, etc., but often times their [male] partners actually do the buying. In our department, women take care of the transactions and build their own collections. We’re also younger, so we’re a great gateway to the collecting world.”
As it stands, Christie’s Handbags & Accessories department caters primarily to women between 30 and 40 years of age. And unlike the fine art departments, which typically negotiate through dealers, Donovan and her team work directly with private clients across Asia, Europe, and the United States.
With pieces that open for bidding at three figures and average out at four to five, handbags are an ideal segue into collecting for beginners. Plus, Donovan adds, “live auctions can be really intimidating.” Since most handbag sales take place online, the low-pressure anonymity of e-commerce makes for an easy introduction. After all, she continues, “buying handbags online is something that a lot of women are familiar with.”
While a percentage of Christie’s handbag clients are also seasoned art collectors, the Handbags & Accessories department is forging a new generation of buyers. “Handbags are emerging as a proper aspect of the collecting asset class,” Donovan notes, “which changes the shopping game for women.” As one of the first auction houses to integrate handbags into the accessories department in 2014, the cultivation of a rapidly expanding and ever-strengthening market has created lucrative potential for long-term investment, not to mention a breadth of collecting opportunities for women with luxury tastes but without the funds for their very own Basquiat.
Among the 200-plus handbags offered in Christie’s biannual New York Luxury Sales, the priciest highlights included a trio of 2010 Chanel “Matryoshka” evening bags (realized for $32,500, $27,500, and $27,500, respectively), and a 2011 limited edition “So Black” Hermès handbag, sold for $21,250. In London, a “Himalaya Niloticus” crocodile Hermès Birkin bag with 18k white gold and diamond hardware fetched £162,500. These are higher-end examples of the “one-of-a-kind pieces that even top collectors come to Christie’s to buy because they can’t get them in the stores,” Donovan explains. For Christie’s clients who are also serious art collectors, four-to-five-figure price tags are comparatively affordable, and classic handbags kept in pristine condition are reliable investments.
“About 80 percent of what we sell in the department is Hermès, because Hermès has a robust secondary market,” Donovan informs. “It’s even stronger than the primary. Pieces sell for more at auction than they do in the store.” As a result, some of Christie’s top clients—we’re talking “women who are buying Picassos”—have gotten into buying and selling handbags after recognizing the profits they can turn from their recently-purchased, lightly-worn, and vintage accessories.
“We of course don’t want to be exclusive,” Donovan notes, so she has overseen the addition of trunks, travel pieces, and homewares to the Handbags & Accessories department—pieces that appeal to both men and women. But in a vastly male-dominated market, the rise of the handbag enforces the timelessness of this classic accessory, and beckons a new era of independent female collectors with autonomy over their personal acquisitions.
“The kinds of handbags that we’re marketing are ones that aren’t trendy,” Donovan concludes. “They’re iconic pieces of art.”
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.