|By Paul Pat Morse and Linda Edelstein
Louis Vuitton: the name is familiar to anyone who has even the slightest interest in modern design. Imagine a lady’s handbag costing $1,500. That’s Vuitton.
Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy or LVMH is a multi-national conglomerate that produces luxury goods such as their signature trunks, Hennesy cognac and Moet champagne. They sponsor world-class yachting races and auto events such as The Louis Vuitton Classic, an auto show exhibiting both classic vehicles and cutting-edge car designs.
Vuitton has not always been synonymous with wealth and class. Louis Vuitton was a man of 16 when he apprenticed with a French box maker named Monsieur Marechal. Seventeen years later, Vuitton opened his own trunk-making business at 4 Rue Neuve-des-Capucines in Paris. The year was 1854.
Vuitton was a perfectionist and wanted to produce trunks that were unrivaled in workmanship and materials. From the beginning, his attention to detail has made Vuitton trunks among the best-ever produced. The style was modest, at first, with gray-painted canvas or “gris trianon” and iron hardware; then bolder through the years with a beige- and red-striped pattern canvas accompanied by solid brass handles, locks and buttons. Next came the checkerboard or “Damier” pattern and, in 1896, the monogram-decorated, brown-painted canvas, the pattern that is so widely recognized today was introduced by Vuitton’s son, George.
Vuitton’s trunks and luggage were award winners at international expositions starting with a bronze medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867. Since that time LV trunks have been displayed at many World’s Fair expositions and have won a number of gold medals and first place awards. The luggage was in demand by the aristocracy, world travelers and others of means who wanted goods of the finest quality and had the money to pay for it.
Quality has always been the hallmark of a Vuitton trunk. Linen for the interior, solid brass hardware, leather edging, and the best craftsmanship have always been employed. The Vuitton Co. even planted its own poplar groves for wood to be used in the trunks.
The trunks got larger and larger. Wardrobe trunks for steamship and railroad travel were introduced in 1876 and were popular. These trunks were often used by “rusticators,” folks from the city who would pack up and move to their country “cabins” for the summer.
Big trunks, custom-made for polo clubs, were produced. Trunks for elephant guns, zinc covered trunks for jungle exploration, and a bed trunk used by explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza were just a few of the custom-made trunks.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Vuitton Co. stayed in business when many trunk makers were failing. During this time, an estimated 90 percent of the world’s trunk makers closed shop. The means of travel was changing from steamships and trains to airplanes and automobiles and Vuitton kept up with the changes by designing smaller pieces.
Vuitton emerged from the World War II era intact and strong. The company survived a short but controversial period where it collaborated with Nazis to remain in business.
Those who want a Louis Vuitton trunk may purchase a new one for $10,000 to $30,000 or more. Older trunks can be found in antique shops, estate auctions or on the Internet and eBay. These trunks can cost from several-hundred dollars to $15,000 to $20,000 or more depending on condition, rarity and provenance.
Vintage, custom-made and unusual trunks, such as a large desk trunk or a wardrobe trunk, cost the most. These trunks are usually found in the $8,000 to $15,000 range. But even small, cube-shaped trunks no more than two-feet square can be costly, running as much as $5,000 to $7,000. The more plentiful flat-top steamer trunks range from $5,000 to $10,000.
These prices reflect trunks with the LV monogrammed canvas. Missing handles, canvas, or hardware can substantially reduce the value. Staining on the interior liner and musty odors are also expensive to remedy.
LV trunks with different coverings – such as the red- and beige-striped or checkerboard Damier pattern – command high prices, as well. The gray-painted, earlier LV trunks are more affordable and can usually be found for under $2,500. Also, look for orange-painted or “Vuitonnite” canvas covered trunks as well as leather trunks and suitcases. These last two are not as obvious as the patterned trunks, but they are just as valuable.
Those who have a Louis Vuitton trunk to sell should pay to research it thoroughly or get an appraisal first. For a typical Vuitton trunk, a wide range of prices are possible. For example, prices for, essentially, the same trunk range from a low of $4,000 to a high of nearly $20,000.
Why the disparity? The higher-priced examples tend to be on Internet where a dealer would be in no hurry to sell the trunk. In fact they might not even want to sell it because just having one in their inventory lends a certain status.
For a more realistic view of pricing on Louis Vuitton trunks, search eBay. Go to the site and type in “Louis Vuitton trunk”. Several pages of results for active listings, all at different levels of bidding, will appear. But the revelation will come researching the “completed” listings box. This will give you a list of recent auctions that have ended. Those with red prices have not sold.
The ones with green prices have sold. Note that most of the red listings have unrealistically high starting prices and never received a bid. Look closely at the green listings. These are the prices that people have actually paid. These are the prices that will help you determine what a trunk is worth.
Today, Louis Vuitton is internationally recognized and has the distinction of being one of only a handful of top-quality trunk producers in the world. Vuitton also produces high-end fashion accessories such as handbags, wallets, $500 flip-flops and other apparel all designed by renowned artists including Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murikami and Mark Jacobs.
Paul Pat Morse and Linda Edelstein, from Barrington N.H., have written several books on antique trunks and have the website Trunk.com.