Rachel Koffsky: in the bag

The head of handbag sales at Christie's Auction House, on combining art with business and approaching every day as if your biggest client is going to walk through the door

People 28 Apr 2020

Rachel Koffsky, head of handbag sales at Christie's

Rachel Koffsky, head of handbag sales at Christie's

I grew up an hour from New York City, and was introduced to handbags from a young age by my grandmother and my mother. My grandmother was a fashion lover and always had the most amazing handbags, which she would often lend to my mum, so I grew up seeing handbags as a special object to be treasured. I remember going to my grandmother’s house and seeing all her Chanel bags lined up like a library in her wardrobe, and I loved studying these beautiful pieces.

However, I never thought of myself as someone who would work in fashion or with handbags. In fact, growing up I didn’t even know that being a handbag expert was something anybody could do! I studied art history and math at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, so I always had a very strong analytical side, but I also really enjoyed the creative world and I interned at museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I also worked at the Walters Art Museum, which is close to where I studied in Baltimore. When I graduated, I wanted to use more of the math part of my brain, and I found handbags were a blend of the things that I loved – luxury, art and business.

Early in my career, I was handling a lot of handbags and I became very adept in the market – and with cataloguing and authenticating – and this allowed me, with a lot of luck, enthusiasm and hard work, to become one of the top specialists.

Christie’s sold its first Chanel bag, from the personal collection of Coco Chanel, in 1978 in London and continued to offer bags periodically in fashion sales until 2012 when Handbags & Accessories was launched as a standalone category.

I moved from New York to London just over three years ago, when I was 26 and have three main roles at Christie’s. The first is a handbag specialist. I work with clients to appraise their handbags, advise what is collectable, the value, and how they can curate their collections. Not many people know that since we opened in 1766, we have been facilitating private sales. Connecting our collectors to really incredible pieces is something we continue to do today.

I’m also head of sales for handbags, so I’m responsible for putting together two live auctions per year in London, working to bring together the cataloguing, exhibition preview, tours, marketing and PR etc. Finally, I’m also an auctioneer, and I don’t only take handbag sales but auctions for other categories too.

What’s interesting about handbags is that it’s really the only female-centric investment category. Handbags are something that nearly all women – and some men – own, so women feel confident buying them, which is a good way to introduce handbag lovers to buying at auction, as it can seem intimidating at first. One third of the participants in our handbag auctions are new to Christie’s, and the awareness of the collectability of handbags continues to grow. A report was released earlier this year that said handbag sales over the past year outperformed the FSE 100, so they are absolutely holding their value and it’s a growing market.

The leader in the secondary market for handbags is Hermès, and the most collectable pieces are classic models such as the Kelly and Birkin, as well as limited-edition, rare and runway pieces from the 1990s and early-2000s when Jean-Paul Gaultier was creative director. Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior and Fendi are represented in our auctions as well. Chanel pieces from Karl Lagerfeld’s tenure are highly collectable. Now we are seeing a lot of designers including Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior bringing back archival pieces. Collectors are looking to these pieces that inspire the new runway collections, such as the Dior saddlebag and vintage Gucci pieces with the signature stripe. There is a renaissance of vintage-style handbags on the primary market, which is driving sales on the secondary market.

When buying a vintage piece, the condition could make ten times the difference to the value, so look for good condition above everything else. Do thorough research, stick to the classics and buy from a trusted auction house or respected dealer. Most importantly, buy for love and passion, not investment, look for a piece you can enjoy for a lifetime.

The best advice I would give is to be ready for every situation. For me, that means I get up every day like its auction day, even if I’m going to be cataloging in the warehouse or examining a century-old Louis Vuitton trunk, you never know what’s going to happen, the next person who walks through the door may be your next top collector.

Dates will soon be announced for our next Handbag auction in London, in the meantime, details of our online sales and handbags available for immediate purchase via private sale are available on the website.