How great things have aged: Bentleys antiques
14 January 2011
It’s easy to think that people have always appreciated vintage items like leather luggage, bags and accessories. But back in the early eighties, that wasn’t the case. It was only in the middle of that decade that taste in the UK started to turn away from the obviously new and towards the idea of beauty in the aged.
Tim Bent, whom I met recently, started his antiques business back in the mid-eighties. One of his first customers was Jeremy Hackett, who was starting out selling second-hand clothing and wanted the leather accessories to match. (Jeremy is still one of Tim’s biggest clients, along with Ralph Lauren.) It was another 10 years, the mid-nineties, before vintage became really fashionable though.
Tim maps out the past 100 years like this: At the turn of the century, your great-grandparents owned and used handmade leather luggage like this; your grandparents appreciated it and perhaps used it; your parents though it was nice, but impractical, either selling it off or putting it in the attic; this generation is appreciating that luggage all over again (though Tim might have bought it off your parents in order to sell it back to you!).
Heavy, hand-stitched leather like this survives very well. But it is still rare to find pieces with no imperfections at all – stitches ripped or water damage. Water is often the worst culprit: “When water is left to sit on luggage like this it evaporates slowly and draws all the moisture out of the leather. It ends up looking like it’s been burned,” says Tim.
So the pieces collected have none of these problems, just a great patina that’s been built up over a 100 years or more. The only restoration required is leather cream and polish, to feed the skin and get it glowing again. Just like shoes, only thicker and so thirstier.
Most of the items shown here are pre-WWII, from the twenties or thirties – though luggage is very hard to date precisely, particularly once it has been sold on from the original owners.
Age is one of the biggest determinants of price, along with rarity and whether it’s crocodile or Vuitton/Goyard/Hermes. Most of the small cases here are between £500 and £1000, though smaller items (collar boxes, for example) would be a hundred or two.
I was particularly interested in the different structures of briefcases from this period. One, seen in the set of dark brown cases above, was thick moulded leather, made by exerting a large amount of force to bend it to the desired shape. No frame, a slightly liquid edge and no need for a substantial lining.
The second structure, made contemporaneously, used a thin steel frame around the top and bottom edge that different sections of leather could be stitched around. Often the steel would be in separate pieces, one for each edge. The difference in appearance is considerable – a frame makes the case seem modern; without it it’s an antique.
I don’t think I would use a vintage briefcase like this day to day, but I’m interested in the possibilities of trunks and small carry cases, used as storage and decoration at home, and possibly hand luggage for travel. The leather cigar cases are also beautiful, but proportionately more expensive as they are mostly from the 1850s.
Tim has a vast collection, including old Maxwell riding boots and tiny football boots (made as salesman’s samples). A small part of it is stored down at the Bentleys shop in Walton Street, west London. An even smaller amount is now available in the new Gieves & Hawkes layout, at No 1 Savile Row. Check it out, as well as our friends bespoke shoemakers James Ducker and Deborah Carre around the corner.