A hush spreads through the auction room as Lot 259 comes up for sale. Handcrafted, in pristine condition and incredibly rare, few are lucky enough to lay their replica handbags on something so beautiful — let alone buy one of their own.
Smartly dressed women are nudging one another — and their husbands — as they crane their necks towards the back of the room, where a glamorous blonde in skinny jeans and a baby blue cashmere jumper is refusing to back down.
Silence descends on the room again. ‘Going once, going twice . . . sold to the lady in the back row!’ declares the auctioneer.
Grinning, the lucky winner struts over to the desk to claim her lot. But the item the auction staff produce from a locked cabinet with a flourish isn’t a painting, or a piece of furniture — or even a designer watch.
Rather, it’s a louis vuitton replica. An apple green leather Hermès Birkin bag, to be precise.
It’s mid-morning at Fellows Auctioneers in Birmingham and the Designer Collection auction is in full swing.
There are more than 500 lots on offer, from four rare Birkin bags — the extremely covetable designs made by French brand Hermès, the most expensive of which is a red crocodile skin number expected to fetch between ￡15,000 and ￡20,000 — to Chanel clutches, Louis Vuitton totes and evening bags by Christian Dior.
Since the doors opened at 8.30am, there has been a scrum of eager customers, most of them female, some accompanied by reluctant-looking husbands — all desperate to get their hands on a bargain designer bag.
This is the third auction of its type at Fellows, a family-run auction house in the city’s jewellery quarter, whose main business is antiques, fine art, coins and medals. The previous louis vuitton replica sale made over ￡100,000, and today’s is expected to be more lucrative still.
For the handbag auction is fast taking the place of the sample sale or designer discount village as the new secret haunt of fashion-conscious middle-class women desperate to bag — excuse the pun — a bargain.
‘We used to tag handbags on the end of our jewellery and accessories sales,’ explains Stephen Whittaker, managing director and today’s auctioneer. ‘Eventually the demand became so high that we had to make it a separate event.
‘When I saw how much money women were willing to shell out for a handbag, especially a Hermès or a Chanel, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.
‘We get a huge turnout for these sales. Several hundred bidders are often crammed into the small auction room and bidding can be fierce.
‘Some people come to browse, but most have their eye on one particular bag, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it.’
Fellows isn’t the only auction house to realise bags can be big business. In 2012, Christie’s introduced a department entirely dedicated to handbags and accessories, and sales now take place not only across the UK but in New York, Paris, Dubai and Shanghai.
‘The attendees are generally women but they’re an eclectic, stylish bunch from all walks of life,’ says Matt Rubinger, who heads Christie’s new division. ‘We get young women looking for a vintage Hermès Kelly, working women looking for something functional, jet-setters looking for crocodile skin weekenders and collectors looking for rarities.’
Sometimes, the excitement reaches fever pitch. At one recent auction in Hong Kong, a 12in Himalayan crocodile skin Birkin bag, set with 245 diamonds and adorned with white gold, sold amid a frenzy of bids for ￡197,300 — making it the most valuable handbag in the world.
Today’s crowd don’t have quite such deep pockets. Most of the bags on offer, which come from private collectors and leather traders, cost between ￡100 and ￡1,000.
They’re piled high on display tables at the back of the auction room, resembling an Aladdin’s cave of glinting gold buckles, buttery-soft leather and designer monograms.
As I trudge home with my battered High Street shoulder bag, dreaming of the designer gems I could have bought, it’s little comfort. But now I know the secrets of bagging a bag at auction, I’ll definitely be back.