October 22, 2019

A passion for antique purses

Lori Blaser’s home is a shrine to women’s handbags. With 2,500 pieces in her collection — the oldest of which dates back to the 16th century — she displays her treasures with the eye of a skilled interior decorator (which she is). Beaded and mesh bags nonchalantly dangle from the edges of painting frames. Tiny mesh vanity purses hang from a multihook stand to form a small “chandelier” that rests on a desk. 

The co-author of the book “A Passion for Purses,” Blaser has come to understand that these items are more than simple fashion accessories. They contain fascinating histories about their owners, the times in which they lived and the craftspeople who made the bags. 

But the Thousand Oaks woman long has had a personal affection for them, too. 

“I am just drawn to purses,” Blaser said, offering as proof a photo of herself at age 2 in her native Michigan, decked out in a puffy snowsuit and clutching a small purse. 

“I can’t tell you why, but I know it is something inside of me,” she continued. “Our family had modest means, and although I did not have the money to buy brand-new purses, I realized I did not want what everybody else was carrying. I bought ’50s purses made with alligator, crocodile and snakeskin with my babysitting money.” 

Blaser, who is in her 50s, explains her passion for purses truly ignited around the time she turned 40 and went to Europe for the first time. On a visit to the London Silver Vaults, the world’s largest retail collection of fine antique silver, she bought her first antique mesh purse, which was more than 80 years old. By then, she had retired from her telecommunications career to raise her youngest son, Brian. 

In 2003, about a decade after her London trip, she stumbled upon one of the most beautiful antique purses she had seen in her life. 

“I did not win that purse, but my heart started palpitating, and I thought at that moment I died and went to heaven,” she recalled. “There is something about this purse that marked the beginning of my obsession in earnest.” 

As her collection grew, Blaser built a network of fellow collectors from around the world. It led to her co-authoring a book with Georgia-based collector Paula Higgins, covering the history, art, design and functions of handbags through the ages. Both women are founding members of the Antique Purse Collector’s Society. This year, the group met in Amsterdam at the Museum of Bags and Purses at the invitation of its director, Sigrid Ivo. 

Today, most of Blaser’s collection focuses on handbags made prior to the 1950s, when even mass-produced bags had a degree of handcrafted artistry. But her oldest bag, a small, embroidered utility pouch, dates to about 1575. 

“I have purses from the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s and 1900s, which shows you a full-rounded progression of how women’s relationships with their handbags evolved,” she said. 

Early purses in her possession were plain and utilitarian, such as “pockets” American Colonial women wore around their waists. Others, dating from the Renaissance, were for the wealthy who could afford the best examples of beading, embroidery, carving and other forms of craftsmanship. 

What has never changed is the innate purpose: to move forward with life’s necessities at easy reach. 

Sometimes, Blaser’s connection to a purse is personal. Among her treasures is a photograph from about 1890 of a great-aunt carrying an elaborate mesh purse — the same one that now sits atop a chest of storage drawers filled with some of her most cherished handbags. 

However, she boasts that her proudest acquisitions are from previous Jewish owners and merchants, embodying some of their early struggles with fascinating stories. Consider the two purses (one from about 1675) originally belonging to Emma Henriette Schiff-Suvero, a 19th-century woman born in Vienna who married into an aristocratic Jewish family and who was a purse collector in her own right. Her collection was eventually bequeathed to a nephew, who left Austria for Switzerland in 1938 and was unable to export it under Nazi rule. It wasn’t until 2003 that the Austrian government returned the collection to the family heirs. 

To those considering starting their own collection, Blaser says there are still many from all eras, at all price points, waiting to be found. While the older beaded bags, like the ones making up a huge portion of her collection, are too fragile for everyday use, she said 20th-century beaded bags that are not in perfect condition or modern purses finished with antique purse frames are good, wearable ways to go. 

Blaser hasn’t forgotten that handbags are good for more than collecting. She suggests that purses from the 1940s and ’50s are great for today’s women for everyday use, especially because they are a great value and less fragile than purses made in the earlier decades. 

“I use a lot of ’50s and ’60s bags made in France that were expensive back in their day because they were handmade,” she said, adding if she were given $1,000 to buy the bag of her dreams, she’d go vintage over new any day. 

“You can buy these bags today for far less than they cost new in the ’50s and ’60s, and you have this gorgeous piece of art you can carry on your arm that’s uniquely your own.” 

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