Christie’s is the world’s leading art business, and of all of its driving forces—the hundred-million dollar Picassos, the hundred-plus carat Ceylon sapphires— one of its fastest growing auction categories is handbags. Heading the sales of that closely watched five-year-old department in the United States is Caitlin Donovan, a 29-year-old with an encyclopedic command of leather, hardware, finishes and color. “I joke that I see the world in Hermès colors,” says the New York native of her ability to date a bag to a specific season on sight by its telltale shade. “You have to surround yourself and bury yourself in it to understand it.”
Just how did a twenty-something get handed one of the industry’s most important accounts? Donovan never sought to become a handbag specialist. “I thought I was going to be a lawyer or a prison guard,” she says laughing. But while she was studying history and sociology (with an emphasis in criminology) at Vanderbilt, her classmate, wunderkind Matthew Rubinger, was becoming so successful at buying and selling luxury handbags from his dorm room, that he caught the attention of Heritage Auctions. It was the tail end of the recession. With many people no longer able to afford this season’s luxury goods, the secondary market was suddenly booming. Authentication became a necessity for easing the anxiety of shoppers spending hundreds if not thousands on items online. Rubinger saw his niche, getting a leg up on luxury consignment companies including The Real Real and Vestiare Collective, which wouldn’t launch until 2011. Heritage Auctions signed him in 2010, bringing him on to create a landmark new department, not only for their auction house, but for those across the globe. Rubinger tapped Donovan, then the director of sales and marketing for the small luxury handbag brand, Holly Caldwell, as his number two.
“I understood the sales and marketing aspect, the design, the factories in Italy, but I got really into authenticating. I did a lot of my training on the ground,” remembers Donovan, a quick study. Together, they brought Heritage Auctions millions, causing a rumble in the auction world that Christie’s could no longer ignore. In 2014, Donovan was poached to help launch the branch that now boasts outposts in Hong Kong, Paris and London, in addition to New York. Donovan, for her part, is now responsible for keeping their online store, which refreshes its selection every two weeks, well stocked and piecing together two auctions a year with around 200 pieces that range from a vintage Christian Dior bag which might start at $300 to a the highest-raking items: rare Hermès Birkins. “Our top handbag collectors are interested in Hermès. It’s the only brand that sells for more on the secondary market than the primary market.” A white crocodile Himalaya Hermès Diamond Birkin (so named for its diamond-encrusted hardware) broke records at the spring Hong Kong auction, raking in a whopping $380,000.
With resale value like this, shopping for statement accessories “isn’t frivolous, it’s an investment,” says Donovan. The accessible starting price point is drawing in a younger audience, while the subject matter has gained a concentrated collecting base of women. “We’re the only department where the largest percentage of our customers are female,” creating an exponentially growing audience with crossover appeal. After nabbing, say, a quilted Chanel boy bag, clients are liable to dabble in jewelry, wine, art auctions and beyond. After all, women are all but groomed to be discerning handbag collectors. Donovan herself picks up heart-pumping speed when she talks about the craftsmanship of her own Birkin (she herself carries a 30cm black leather version with gold hardware every day). “We’re empowering women to collect.” The times, like fashion, are changing.