Designed for intrepid explorers, this historic travel trunk could become the most valuable trunk in history. Christie's Head of Handbags and Accessories Matthew Rubinger explains why
‘Every specialist has an object that they dream of having in their sales,’ says Matthew Rubinger, Christie’s Head of Handbags and Accessories. ‘For me, it’s this aluminium Explorer trunk by Louis Vuitton. The market is full of silver-coloured metal trunks, but this piece is their inspiration.’
Louis Vuitton produced just a handful of these aluminium trunks — designed for the most intrepid of explorers — in a single year: 1892. Today, only two examples are known to exist. One is in the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The other is this one, offered in Christie’s Handbags & Accessories auction on 12 December in London.
‘We know there are other Louis Vuitton Explorer trunks around, but not in this metal,’ Rubinger adds. ‘Any aluminium trunk from this period is valuable, but because this one is both aluminium and made by Louis Vuitton, it is one of the most historically important trunks in the world.’
The Explorer trunks were produced in zinc, copper and brass throughout the 1890s, but aluminium models were by far the most luxurious. ‘Aluminium is today one of the least expensive materials on earth because it is so abundant, but affordable mass production methods didn’t exist until the 1920s,’ explains the specialist. ‘When this trunk was made, aluminium was considered a very precious metal in France. Napoleon III had jewellery and a tableware service made from the metal, and for a period it was even worth more than gold.’
Louis Vuitton’s early adoption of new materials and technologies helped assert his dominance in the travel-trunk market. In addition to filing patents for special hinges and clasps, Vuitton was the first to make a flat-top trunk that could be stacked. (Prior to this, trunks had had curved lids.)
‘Its historical significance makes this trunk worthy of a museum or institutional collection’ — Matthew Rubinger
‘Canvas and wooden trunks were also not suited for Asian and African environments,’ says Rubinger. ‘Louis Vuitton used materials that were not only lightweight but could also protect against humidity and insects, and it was from this spirit of exotic travel that the Explorer trunks were born.’
Unfortunately, there is no record of who originally owned this trunk, although its costliness would suggest it was one of the late 19th century’s wealthiest explorers. There are initials printed on the trunk’s side but, frustratingly, they are impossible to decipher.
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Stamped inside the trunk's lid are the addresses of Louis Vuitton’s Paris and London stores. The London address, however, has been struck through, with a second added underneath. ‘Louis Vuitton moved between stores for a short time in the 1890s, and I would guess that this updated label means that the trunk was sold in London during this period,’ says Rubinger. ‘Ultimately it’s hard to say, but it adds to the mystery.’
The trunk's dents and scratches suggest it has seen the world, but it has actually spent much of its life stowed safely in a basement in the United Kingdom, kept by a family who didn’t realise its importance and surrounded by Christmas ornaments.
‘Even if you don't know much about the history of Louis Vuitton, it’s an extremely impressive-looking thing,’ Rubinger concludes. ‘As well as appealing to Louis Vuitton collectors, its historical significance and the romance of adventure make it worthy of a museum or institutional collection.’
The Louis Vuitton aluminium Explorer trunk is on view at Christie’s in London from 23 to 27 November and 8 to 12 December, ahead of the Handbags & Accessories auction on 12 December.