Endorsed by JLo and Kim Kardashian, the Birkin became the must-have bag for elite burglary gangs

Barbara McMahon
Daily Mail
German Alegria MLS Jennifer Lopez, Victoria Beckham, and Kim Kardashian are all fans of the illustrious Hermes Birkin bag.
German Alegria MLS Jennifer Lopez, Victoria Beckham, and Kim Kardashian are all fans of the illustrious Hermes Birkin bag. Credit: German Alegria/MLS / Instagram @jlo @ki kardash

Under cover of darkness, the two burglars broke into the empty mansion in the Pacific Palisades, a wealthy California neighbourhood home to millionaires and celebrities, including film director Steven Spielberg.

Heading straight for the master bedroom, the thieves didn’t take long to spot the holy grail of handbags — a Hermès Birkin nestled in the wardrobe in its dust bag and worth $US37,000 ($56,000).

Grabbing the iconic item and throwing some lesser designer bags into a black plastic bag for good measure, the intruders moved on to the office.

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Brazenly, they rifled through drawers until they found something else of value — receipts for the Birkin, and the other handbags, that would prove authenticity and increase their resale price.

Beloved by some of the world’s most stylish women, the Birkin has long been a sought-after fashion accessory, but the handmade leather tote, with its burnished flap and saddle stitching, now has a less attractive claim to fame.

Paris, France - October, 1: woman wearing navy blue ostrich leather Birkin handbag from Hermes, street style outfit details.
An Hermes Birkin bag is a treasured fashion accessory. Credit: photo-lime / Adobe Stock

Timeless design and rarity value (the number made each year is a closely guarded secret, but no more than 200,000 are in circulation) has made the Birkin the world’s most desirable handbag — and a favourite target of burglars.

“Birkins and other high-end purses (handbags) are currency to criminals — the hot item to steal,” Marc Beaart, director of fraud and corruption prosecutions at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office tells me.

“Bags like these are liquid assets, easier to pass on than stolen art, electronics or even jewellery.

“Thieves can sell them to a network of friends, sell them online or to a fence (a criminal middleman, who operates between the thieves and a legitimate buyer). And, of course, there’s a lot of money involved. I had one case where a single bag was worth $US150,000 ($220,000).’

The Birkin was created in 1984 when, on a flight from Paris to London, the British actress Jane Birkin sat next to Jean-Louis Dumas, the then-executive chairman of the French fashion house Hermès, and complained to him that she could not find a bag for her needs as a fashionable young mother.

Dumas sketched a design for a spacious rectangular leather tote — and the Birkin was born. Depending on the size, colour and material the tote is made from, prices for an entry level Birkin start at $153,000 pounds today but can rise to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kate Moss is a fan. Victoria Beckham is rumoured to have a collection of Birkins worth $3m, and she and Tamara Ecclestone, Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian have all sported the rare Hermès Himalaya Niloticus Crocodile Diamond Birkin. That version costs $153,000 to $575,000, depending on the number of diamonds on the clasp.

The price of this status symbol is certainly eyebrow-raising but a Birkin remains an aspirational purchase for many women.

It is also tantalisingly difficult to acquire, since the French fashion house — controversially according to some — reserves them for their best customers.

Three Californians, each with a history of buying from Hermès, recently filed a class action lawsuit against the company alleging the luxury brand violated anti-trust laws and is exploiting customers by requiring them to buy other products before they are eligible to purchase a Birkin.

Jennifer Lopez has sported a number of HermÃ(R)s Birkin bags.
JLo regularly uses her Hermes bag. Credit: Instagram @jlo

None of this has gone unnoticed in the crime world, particularly among gangs of professional thieves from South American countries who enter the US and the UK on tourist visas, ransack homes and then attempt to flee before they are caught.

In January this year, US influencer and stylist Juliet Angus, star of the American reality TV show Ladies Of London, had her “entire collection” of Birkins, built up over 25 years, stolen from her house in West London.

Neighbours’ scaffolding may have allowed someone to see into the upper floors of her home and spot the bags, she said.

In Los Angeles, these “burglary tourists” often spot their quarries on social media or on the street, says Beaart, and follow them home. “They won’t break into a house when the owner is there, but wait until the person leaves.

“Sometimes they use wi-fi jammers so the surveillance cameras and alarms can be taken down. Then they’ll ignore expensive art and electronics and go straight to the bedroom, looking for the high-end items.

“There aren’t many of these crews but they’re active,” he continues, referring to professional thieves who come from countries such as Chile, Peru, Ecuador and El Salvador. If you can take down one crew, you can prevent ten to 20 burglaries a week because that’s how prolific they are.

“They’re here for a limited amount of time, until they know law enforcement is on to them, then they go to another state or to a different continent.”

Kim Kardashian has sported a number of HermÃ(R)s Birkin bags.
Kardashian has shown off a wall of Birkins to her Instagram followers. Credit: Instagram @kimkardashian

Last November, an alleged luxury handbag fence was arrested following an investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department’s commercial crimes division.

California resident Karla Sunceri, 51, was arrested after a police surveillance operation in which she is said to have met members of a Chilean criminal gang and accepted stolen handbags taken in domestic burglaries.

As part of a sting operation, the LAPD task force followed the woman to a supermarket car park and watched as bulky packages, “consistent with the shape of handbags” and concealed in black bin bags, were loaded into her car on multiple occasions.

After a search warrant was issued and detectives raided Sunceri’s home, they found 15 Birkins, 12 Chanel handbags and five Louis Vuittons as well as other designer handbags and $480,000 in cash.

When questioned, Sunceri denied selling handbags and said she worked as a cleaning lady.

However, detectives claim to have found additional evidence of her selling Birkin and Chanel bags on Instagram and to resale sites.

Sunceri and her son Erick Palencia — who was a month away from graduating as a police officer when arrested — have pleaded not guilty to 56 counts of receiving stolen property, conspiracy to commit a crime and money laundering.

They are due in court next Tuesday, June 25.

Don Moore, a 45-year veteran of the home security industry in Los Angeles, has had his own experience of Birkin theft.

One of his customers failed to set the alarm system that his company had carefully installed in her mansion because she was going out only for a short time — a common mistake.

“It’s what we call a target-specific burglary, similar to an auto thief who might be asked to find a red Lamborghini Aventador, no questions asked,” Moore says of the theft.

“These are the kind of thieves who know the difference between a real Birkin and a knock-off. They’re going to be able to sell it more quickly than a watch or a diamond bracelet and they probably have a fence they know well, already lined up, ready to buy it.

“When I heard my client’s Birkin cost $40,000 ($60,000) I nearly choked. Somebody who can afford a bag at that price should certainly switch on their alarm system or, at the very least, have a closet that’s sub-zoned to the alarm system.”

LOS ANGELES - JULY 13:  Victoria Beckham during a press conference introducing David Beckham as the newest member of the Los Angeles Galaxy on July 13, 2007 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, CA.
Victoria Beckham matched her Birkin to her bright pink dress in 2007. Credit: German Alegria/MLS

Milton Pedraza, CEO of the research and consulting group The Luxury Institute, describes the Birkin as a “defining possession” for some women and acknowledges that its scarcity increases its value.

“It makes a statement about the person who has it. It says that you can afford to buy this product and also that you’re “special” because you were able to get one,” he said.

Sometimes you might be wealthy, but you still can’t get access to a Birkin. It’s a one-upmanship kind of asset.

“You’re not trying to impress the average person on the street with a Birkin, you’re trying to impress those who know it’s a Birkin.”

He is not surprised at the rise in Birkin burglaries. “It’s a high value asset that’s coveted and easy to trade on the secondary market. Nobody’s saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to prove to me that you bought this bag in Hermès’, so the thieves can get away with it.

“You don’t have to authenticate it because there’s such a great demand for it, especially in countries where people just want to get the bag, no matter what.

“If someone says: ‘This bag has been stolen from a home in Beverly Hills,” it almost legitimises its authenticity, as ridiculous and horrible as that sounds.

“Many people have multiple homes. I know someone who has 15 homes and spends their time primarily in three — in New York, Los Angeles and Miami — so the others sit empty, even if they have live-in staff.

“Breaking into a home to steal a Birkin — sadly, it’s very doable.”

Karla Martin, a San Francisco-based expert on global luxury fashion and apparel, says social media is partly to blame for the rise in Birkin burglaries because owners show them off and boast about having one or even a collection.

“It’s perfect for organised crime, because you’ve literally told everyone that you have something valuable, that has a high resale value, in your house.

“It’s not too hard to figure out where someone would keep their Birkin — probably in the wardrobe of their bedroom. And it’s not going to attract attention when a thief carries it away, not like carrying a safe or a television.”

Milan, Italy - February 22, 2023: woman wearing Fendi Peekaboo and Hermes Birkin shoulder bag. Fashion blogger outfit details, street style
The Birkin bag is one of luxury fashion’s most sought-after accessories Credit: photo-lime - stock.adobe.com

Martin acknowledges that the tote’s scarcity and high price can prompt criticism of the women who own them. Yet such judgment is unfair, she says.

We don’t pick on men who have Maseratis or very expensive watches in the same way we pick on women with Birkins.

More could be done to protect stolen Birkins from being sold on so easily, however.

“They have their original value and even if the stolen ones are sold for half their value, that’s still pretty high,” says Martin.

“Police can’t drop everything to search for every stolen Birkin, so I think you’ll be seeing more personalisation of Birkins, where you can have your initials stamped on the inside.

“It doesn’t make them unstealable but it makes them a little less easy to re-sell on the underground market.”

Pedraza and Martin are both sceptical about the success of the pending class action lawsuit that claims the French fashion house is carrying out the unlawful practice of “tying” — requiring Hermès customers to spend thousands on ancillary products, such as scarves and other leather goods, before being allowed to purchase a Birkin.

“I think it’s frivolous and will be difficult to prove,” says Pedraza of the civil action. “Could I sue (luxury Italian fashion brand) Brunello Cucinelli for not allowing me access to the VIP room when I haven’t bought very much from him? The answer is no.”

No one has a “right” to a Birkin bag, adds Martin, who acknowledges Hermès could make thousands more of the bags but has decided not to, elevating their status to a “scarce good” which she says is the definition of luxury.

“This is not just a Birkin phenomenon — all people who sell to consumers take care of their most loyal consumers first,” she says.

“Restaurants save their best tables for regulars because regulars are the people who keep you in business.”

Hermès has already instructed the Los Angeles-based antitrust lawyers Latham & Watkins, who have offices all over the world, to represent them in the forthcoming lawsuit.

In a filing to a California court earlier this month, it countered that customers without a purchase history can still buy a Birkin and argued such a requirement would not be illegal in any case.

“The anti-trust laws do not punish companies for creating better, more desirable products than anyone else,” Hermès said in the filing.

The French fashion house further argued that the lawsuit had not met the stringent legal tests to show that the company unlawfully tied together the sale of two distinct products.

Shaun Setareh, one of the lawyers who launched the class action suit, is keeping tight-lipped and said: “My firm and co-counsel are not providing any comments on the litigation.”

Security consultant Don Moore acknowledges many women wait years to get a Birkin bag and says they should enjoy their purchase.

However, they can reduce their chances of it being stolen by being discreet and following basic security measures.

“I know ladies change their handbags often, but I’d lock away a Birkin when I wasn’t using it, and I wouldn’t show it off on social media.

“This is not the victim’s fault — that lies with the thief — but you’ve got to make it as hard as possible for them.”

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