COLLECTORS ARE AN interesting breed. They partake in what is fundamentally a competitive sport, vying to outdo one another by acquiring ever-more-valuable and rare treasures, yet baulk at the notion that the art market is not that different from the luxury world, where status symbols such as watches and sports cars signify one's standing in society. Considering works of art as mere commodities is anathema in rarefied art circles, even though it's pretty clear that quite a few self-anointed “collectors” are in fact making wise investments and hoping to “flip” their art purchases to turn a profit in the near future.
If there were any doubt about the convergence of the realms of luxury and fine art, that was dispelled last year when the auction house Christie's established a department devoted to handbags and accessories. Hard luxury such as timepieces and jewellery has always had a strong presence at Christie's seasonal sales, but crocodile purses and ostrich minaudières were not seen as worthy of such a prestigious stage, until the powers-that-be realised that this was not a niche to be overlooked.
Matt Rubinger, international director of Christie's handbags and accessories department, is a barely-30-year-old baby-faced gentleman who's been in the vintage handbag business for the better part of his life. Formerly based in New York, where he worked for Heritage Auctions, Rubinger started trading vintage arm candy out of his dorm room in college, learning the ropes of the trade and building a Rolodex of wealthy clients that made Christie's take notice and hire him as their handbag specialist. Shuttling between Hong Kong, where he's now based, and Paris, Rubinger oversees Christie's handbags and accessories auctions and is responsible for acquiring the pieces that will make it to the sale while also ensuring that each bag is authentic and meets Christie's strict standards.
Rubinger held his first auction in Hong Kong last November and what surprised him the most was the level of clientele who expressed interest in this new category. He originally thought that given the relative accessibility of the department, younger collectors who couldn't afford fine-art masterpieces would constitute the lion's share of buyers. On the contrary, it was “our top buyers who were already spending millions with us who came over. Those clients who got our catalogue said, ‘Finally, this category is here!' At first we thought that the biggest crossover would be with the jewellery clients, but it turned out that was wrong,” says Rubinger, as he shows a few key pieces from Christie's spring sale that ended up fetching exorbitant bids from eager collectors.
Admitting that this new category is rarely considered as prestigious as fine art or antiques, Rubinger says that perceptions are changing and that he's now seeing “clients shift their mindset from shoppers to collectors”.
Establishing this new department at such a hollowed institution, however, was no easy task. Rubinger and his team came up with a grading system, he explains. “We grade every bag one through six; one means it's brand new; six means it's a mess, and those numerical grades have really been helpful. If we have a client who comes in and says, ‘I want a brand-new bag' we don't show them something that's a five or a six, we'll show them a one, because that's what they asked for. If someone comes in and says, ‘I'm looking for the most amazing late '80s crocodile Kelly,' we won't show them a one; that's not what they're looking for. We'll show them a three or four, you know, older. So I think it has more to do with working with the clients on an individual basis; we really work with the clients, we handle them.”
This attention to each collector's needs comes with its price, of course, especially for the prized Hermès bags, which in certain cases are as hard to get as a private meeting with the Queen of England. He still recalls how a long-term Hermès client who desperately wanted a two-tone custom-made crocodile Birkin wasn't able to place the order until she commissioned the leather-goods house to deck her private plane in the brand's finest leather. Instead of paying such a steep price to get your hands on a bag, Rubinger says that auction sales are an easier way to get your foot in the door.
Hermès is still the go-to brand if you want to start a collection, though special pieces by Chanel are also in demand. Rubinger believes that brands “having a hard time in the vintage market are the ones that have sort of gone up and down in quality over the years”, whereas those that kept their integrity and commitment to quality still have staying power.
“If you're really new to the area, go as classic as you can go,” he says. “Go for a black Kelly or a black, brown or grey Birkin, so you're not taking a risk. It's not going to sell for 10 times what you bought it for, but you're also not going to lose. It will continue going up in value, subtly, and you'll use it, you'll love it, and nothing will ever change. If you're someone who has bought nice bags over the years, but you're sort of ready to make that transition from shopper to collector, then you start looking at the rarities. Start to look for something that Hermès isn't even producing right now, the collector's items, like ostrich.”
But what would be Rubinger's ultimate get, the holy grail of luxury bags that's truly special and becomes the pièce de resistance in a collector's closet? “For the windows in Paris, Hermès makes certain pieces that are only for that store and for that window. The other stores in Rome or New York just show their normal collection pieces. In Paris, they make specific pieces for the windows and they ‘re not for sale. From time to time, we get those window pieces. It's the magic of Hermès. I'm going to have to knock on Hermès' door every day for the next decade,” he says.
Rubinger obviously maintains very close relationships with the maisons that feed Christie's treasure trove of rare pieces. As he puts it, “We really go to them with our hat in our hands, because we want to represent these brands in the way that they want to be represented. The integrity of the pieces is so important that we want to do this exactly how a brand wants us to do it. We don't have any official relationship with any brands at all, but we do at least attempt to go back on almost every piece and figure out how they would like us to present it.”
Although Rubinger clearly has a passion for the bags – he still examines every single one to check for quality and authenticity and handles them with the kind of care a surgeon would display in an operating room – he also has to look at them with some sense of detachment and pragmatism because ultimately they're meant to be acquired by clients who one day may decide to bid goodbye to their finds. “I always go back to the clients. I really think about Mrs X, you know, what does she want? Looking at a piece, would she bid on this? Is this something that she would want? And that really helps us pick and choose the pieces that make sense, because we all love them and can get carried away.
“We can look at a piece and be like, ‘This is so cool,' and then if it's something that none of our clients want, then yes, it's very cool, but it doesn't belong in the auction,” explains Rubinger, demonstrating that in the end whether you're selling rare works of art or more prosaic arm candy, ultimately it's all about the highest bid in the room.