Handbags at Dawn: Why Auction Houses Are Targeting Luxury Fashion

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Marisa Berenson by Bert Stern, Vogue US, 1965.

On Monday, a handbag shattered a world record. The bag in question, a fuchsia pink crocodile skin Hermès Birkin with 18 karat gold and diamond hardware, sold for HK$1.72 million ($223,000) at an auction held by Christie’s in Hong Kong. The winning bid, from an unidentified buyer, smashed the previous record for a handbag sold at auction, set at Christie’s New York in 2011, when a purse once owned by Elizabeth Taylor went for $218,500.

The market for second-hand luxury fashion has attracted a flurry of digital upstarts, such as The Real Real and Vestiaire Collective. But now, the world’s biggest auction houses are targeting the opportunity.

At the end of last year, Christie’s launched a live auction calendar dedicated to handbags and accessories, off the back of the success of its inaugural live handbag sale last March, which realised €2.5 million (about $2.7 million) in sales. Next month in Paris, Sotheby’s — Christie’s biggest competitor — will host its first auction of haute couture fashion.

“Sotheby’s and Christie’s are working to expand their brand,” said Jeff Rabin, principal and co-founder of art advisory firm Artvest Partners LLC. “Luxury fashion seems to be a natural extension of art, which is the ultimate luxury item.”

Meanwhile, Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, America’s largest collectibles auctioneer, launched its luxury accessories business back in 2010, which has since grown by more than 50 percent a year. “It’s expanded at such an incredible rate,” said Max Brownawell, consignment director and specialist for luxury accessories at Heritage Auctions’ New York office.

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