Collect to invest
Indulge yourself in a harmless fetish: collect leather luggage. This is no ordinary turn-on: as John Windsor writes, it's not the material involved that determines the fetishism, but the personal identification with the collectible.

A private collection of no fewer than 154 pieces of modern Louis Vuitton luggage is being offered by Christie's South Kensington this month. There are trunks, suitcases, hold-alls, hat boxes, cruiser bags, shoe cases, brief cases, beauty cases and men's clutch bags - sufficient for a permanently jet-setting famille nombreuse.

It is no surprise that the vendor, an anonymous and evidently rich "lady" thought to be of Middle Eastern origin, seems to have developed an addiction to posh luggage. Technically, it is a fetishistic collectable: that is, one that the owner identifies with (not necessarily because much luggage is made of leather).

Old, honey-coloured leather suitcases smelling of spilled perfume and plastered with the stickers of the Orient Express, Cunard and grand hotels in Nice and Nairobi are reminders of a bygone age of gracious living and intrepid travelling - a joy to own and cult objects to be seen with.

Luggage made by the French company Louis Vuitton, founded in 1854, has long occupied the top rack of style - without relying on the lure of leather. Throughout its history, the Vuitton family has hob-nobbed with leading fashion designers, explorers, automobile designers, even composers of music, producing custom-made suitcases and trunks covered with the distinctive LV-monogram canvas.

Their concealed compartments and cunning fold-out contraptions tell intimate tales of lives lived to the full. A Louis Vuitton Stokowski travel bureau trunk of 1941 - put into production after being designed for Leopold Stokowski, the avant-garde conductor who brought fame to the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Twenties - sold for pounds 17,000 at a Christie's charity auction of antique trunks in Hong Kong in 1996.

An ingeniously designed writing desk folds into its top, and there is storage for books and files, even a typewriter.

Trunks are a thing of the past - there is none in the forthcoming South Ken sale - but it was Vuitton who designed the first wardrobe trunk in 1875 (having been tipped off by the couturier Worth that crinolines were on their way out) and they are now collected and used as space-saving bedroom furniture. Some are serving as linen chests at the foot of the bed.

In the past couple of years, according to Suzette Shields of Christie's South Ken, trunks have risen in price from pounds 1,400-pounds 1,500 to around pounds 1,800. A Louis Vuitton wardrobe trunk bound in leather and brass fetched pounds 1,840 (estimate pounds 1,200-pounds 1,800) in South Ken's monthly costume and textiles sale in November. A new Louis Vuitton trunk can cost up to pounds 8,500.

At auction, this is still a dealer's market, so private buyers stand a chance of carrying off vintage luggage at below retail prices. A Vuitton suitcase from the Twenties will probably cost you pounds 500-pounds 700. It is not only the Hong Kong Chinese that go for them. Ms Shields reports that the Japanese are big bidders. They will be much in evidence at this month's big sale.

Sotheby's also sells luggage, both in its costume and textile sales and its sales of collectors' vehicles and automobilia. Auctioneer Toby Wilson lyricises: "Swanning through London airport with a Louis Vuitton suitcase is a statement of style, status and wealth. I know a lady who bought a set of Vuitton luggage at Sotheby's specially for her honeymoon, then sold it privately when she got back. It was for appearance - she just wanted that honeymoon to be an event to remember".

In this month's sale of Louis Vuitton at South Ken: a lot of four pieces - hard suitcase in LV fabric, bound in leather and brass, the interior labelled Louis Vuitton Paris Nice 931732 (shown here); a beauty case - the interior lined in beige leather with a removable panel between two sections and adjustable compartments for flasks; a handbag and a make- up bag. Estimate: pounds 900-pounds 1,200 the lot.

The Vuitton company is still a style pioneer - which augurs well for secondhand Vuitton prices. Just as Gaston, Louis Vuitton's son, invited leading artists and designers such as Crystofle to design trendy bottles and silver accessories for his luggage, the Vuitton company celebrated the centenary of its famous monogram last year by commissioning designs from seven designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Helmut Lang and Manolo Blahnik. Westwood, characteristically, designed a bum bag to be worn like a bustle, preferably atop exposed buttocks. Flagship Vuitton stores are to open in Bond Street and the Champs Elysees, Paris, early next year.

Vintage motorists are among the most enthusiastic bidders at auction. Vuitton designed trunks contoured to fit the bodies of limousines by Rolls- Royce, Peugeot and Hotchkiss with bevelled lids that kept out dust and rain. There were ice boxes, footrest cases - rubberised top for feet, stowed on the floor in front of the back seat - and above all, picnic sets, which have acquired a vogue of their own. Just the thing for Ascot.

Sotheby's does a nifty line in them at its sales of collectors' vehicles and automobilia. Picnic sets by Vuitton are rare, but there are plenty by Coracle and some by Mappin & Webb, Drew, Sirram, Barrett and the noted Finnigans. The ones that sell best look the most nostalgic, with shiny silvered kettle, spirit burner, wicker-bound milk bottle and racked crockery and cutlery.

The auctioneers know the ones most likely to sell - they are illustrated in the catalogue. At Sotheby's, a Barrett with not only a kettle but a compact saucepan, nest of glasses, three ceramic condiment sets, butter jar, brandy and whisky bottles, hip flask and corkscrew, fetched pounds 747 in September's vehicle sale. At least the lifestyle that that denotes is not a thing of the past.

Never pick up any old leather luggage or wicker picnic sets by the handles: leather fatigue and woodworm in the wicker could mean, warns Mr Wilson, "that you are left with the handle in your hand and the rest of it still on the floor".

Christie's South Kensington: A Collection of Louis Vuitton Luggage, Tuesday 27 January, 4pm after the costume and textile sale (2pm) in which there are 25 lots of luggage. 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (0171-581 7611). Sotheby's Collectors' Vehicles and Automobilia, RAF Museum, Hendon, Monday 30 March (10.30am).

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