By now, it’s no secret that the market for vintage handbags has exploded. Record sales are causing a stir (remember that $380,000 Himalaya crocodile Birkin at Christie’s last year?), and in the process, creating a seriously lucrative second-hand industry. But as auction houses beef up their inventory of blue-chip bags, and online marketplaces like the RealReal make it easier to hunt down the rarest of the rare, the dark side of handbags—counterfeits—has become ever more rampant.
Caitlin Donovan, Christie’s head of sales for handbags and accessories, knows better than anyone the careful nuances of counterfeits. More often than not, imposter bags only exhibit subtle differences from the real deal. Here, the expert tells us what to look for when evaluating a bag’s authenticity—and why you should always give a bag a sniff test before making a purchase.
How does Christie’s ensure a handbag is authentic?
There is no precise formula—it is not as easy as A plus B equals authentic bag. But what I think as someone who has had a lot of training in the field is there are certain kind of indicators. Every brand and every bag has different indicators that can help you understand when it is made authentically versus when it has been made by someone else.
For example, we all know Hermès bags are made by hand, so we look for the stitching. You can really tell when a bag has been machine-made versus handmade. We also can look at the color of the bag, and given that each is date-stamped for a certain year, we can know if that particular color was actually produced or not.
It’s easy to imagine that bags from a brand like Hermès are extremely popular on the vintage market. Beyond stitching, what should we be looking for?
Every bag is made from start to finish by one craftsman in Hermès’s factories in Paris. The stamps are performed by hand and done very precisely, as is the hardware—so it all has to be a very specific type. For example, each Birkin bag has four feet on the bottom. The leather of the bag is actually built around a metal base, so you shouldn’t be able to spin the feet because they are not screwed in.
Smell can be another big factor. Oftentimes bags that are not authentic are still made of real leather, but they have a very strong, leathery smell that Hermès bags just don’t have. Most bags have specific smells, actually.
What checks can non-experts perform to ensure their handbags are authentic?
It can be challenging to check on your own. Yes, going to a little vintage store and finding a classic vintage [Hermès] Kelly is something that is really special and an experience unto itself, but it is very important that you are buying from trusted sources. I think that is one of the reasons that Christie’s and other auction houses have invested in the Handbags department, because there has been huge growth on the secondary market for luxury accessories.
There are also resources online where you can pay a small fee to have a bag authenticated, as well as obvious resources like myself and other specialists around the world. Then there are the brands themselves. If you buy a bag on the secondary market, you can usually take it to the brand to have a candid discussion about its authenticity.
Do you think the proliferation of the secondary market has made it easier for counterfeiters to pass their bags off as real?
Possibly. I’d like to think that there is not a scheme going on where there are hundreds of people trying to sell fake bags. But if you Google “Hermès Birkin,” and it seems like the price is too good to be true, then oftentimes it is too good to be true. I think that is definitely something that a client needs to keep in mind—and that everyone needs to be very cautious when purchasing something on the secondary market.
Are online auction houses like the RealReal and Vestiaire Collective reliable resources for second-hand bags?
There are admirable brands that have invested time, money, and effort into this market, so there is a higher guarantee that they are offering authentic bags that have been looked at by the right people. Their aim is to only sell authentic bags, and if there is ever one that isn’t, it would likely be accidental.
What do you think is the best kind of vintage bag to invest in?
I really do support people buying and investing in pieces that are heritage, like a vintage Kelly, as opposed to buying the kind of “it” bag of the season, which may be for the same price. There was a moment in the early 2000s when there was this trend toward buying bags that were really recognizable in one season, and then the next season they were out. I love seeing even our younger clients who would have traditionally gone for the “it” bag investing a little bit more in the luxury brands that are iconic and classic.
A lot of times, clients aren’t buying with the intention to re-sell, they want something that can stand the test of time and that they can hand down to their granddaughter. It’s a really special kind of investment, so you very much want to make sure that you are investing in something that is valuable, made by hand, and from the acclaimed fashion house it is supposed to be.