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Auction Barn Finds: A Wealth of Coin Purses

Blog by Moog


Items come to the barn in multiple ways - storage unit emptying, estate clearances, or op-shop (and tip!) finds. We rarely know what’s coming unless there’s a handy inventory provided, and sometimes opening up a box filled with treats is like Christmas morning! 

We’d like to show you the results of one of these such finds: a charming antique timber box full to the brim with a wonderful collection of purses, both antique and vintage. Our clients don’t always know what they have, so it’s our job to evaluate and research; with bundles like this, it’s an opportunity to learn and apply our already existing knowledge to a whole new field!


Coin purses, now outpaced in usefulness in much of the western world by the wallet and cashless transactions, were an essential for much of human history. Whilst in some places, the term ‘purse’ can refer broadly to handbag, it more specifically refers to a bag for coins, reflected by their diminutive size. The oldest ‘purse’ ever found is a calfskin pouch attached to a belt filled with tools recovered from the famous Otzi ‘The Iceman’, dating to 3,000 BC. Perhaps it’s also the earliest tool belt!

The origin of the term ‘purse’ comes from the Latin ‘bursa’, derived from the Greek ‘oxhide’. Leather purses were sturdy, soft, and able to withstand heavy use and weathering, many sealed with a drawstring or toggle, and thus can be found almost everywhere, from hundreds of years old to brand new leather wallets. Many of the examples in this collection are leather, in varying stages of weathering, as it was sturdy, malleable, soft, waterproof, and inexpensive.

[To Left: Lot 18, an Antique Henry Matthews of Birmingham Silver Coin Purse, c.1910, with white enamelled chevron inserts and transparent purple enamel over a machine turned surface, with o-ring and chain to top for hanging from a belt or a chatelaine]

But purses could be made of any material - and whilst the most basic examples were recycled leather or a heavy duty fabric, bags of velvet and silk, fur, with beadwork, gold and silver thread, wire mesh, and metal frames were just some of the many styles employed over centuries. Whatever materials were available and fashionable, someone would probably make a bag out of it, no matter how practical the material. One example is this guilloche enamelled sterling silver purse, in the form of an envelope, with a translucent layer of purple enamel over a sterling base with hallmarks for Henry Matthews of Birmingham, circa 1910 - the inside is dyed purple also! Enamel is not the hardiest material, and and some of the surface coat has been lost revealing the machine turned silver underneath.

Additionally, this fine repousse purse is entirely Sterling Silver (Lot 10, a Samuel M. Levi of Birmingham Purse, c.1907), and features the same O-ring fitting for hanging from a chatelaine, an all-purpose women’s belt chain with attachments for anything a working lady would need. This piece, unusually, seems to be lacking a concertina pocket function, possibly damaged at one point, now refitted with a beautiful deep blue grosgrain lining. For those wanting a more inexpensive alternative but liking the quality and finish, these silverplated EPNS (electro-plated nickel silver) examples (Lot 25, Two Silverplated Purses), aren't quite as elaborate but still beautiful and very functional.


Metal mesh bags in particular were a popular choice in the early 20th century, some featuring metal hinged frames and some with more elaborate expanding mouth forms. No mention of purses in Australia could fail to mention the glomesh handbag, made from a brass and enamelled square mesh and a common item in our showrooms. Incredibly popular in 1960s, 70s, and 80s Australia, invented by Hungarian immigrants Alice & Louis Kennedy, it followed on from the chain link mesh styles of the Edwardian pieces and some frames were repurposed with glomesh as replacement chain later in their lives; see Lot 16, Three Vintage Glomesh purses.QDY1104ANT-19.jpg

Some of the more unusual purses are made of natural materials, such as shells and unusual leathers. This striking piece, Lot 19 (an antique Brevete French Tortoiseshell Purse) is real tortoiseshell, laid on a brass frame base with very thin multicoloured gold detailing to the surface, and marked for the French maker ‘Brevete’ to the inside. Decoratued with an unusual technique called 'pique' work, a French form of decorating tortoiseshell or ivory through delicate application of precious metals to a warmed, organic surface, in a form of inlay. Another example of French craftsmanship is this 'Viard' purse, with an unusual green tone and full maker's mark for Viard, of the Hotel du Louvre, at the Palais Royal. Whilst our research couldn't tell us much about who Viard were, the quality of the piece despite its age and the amount of use this piece has had in its life is apparent (Lot 17, an antique French leather purse, marked for makers 'Viard').

We also have a large collection of shell purses, beautiful and sought after pieces, featuring mother of pearl sleeves, cowries, mussel shells and a beautiful spiral shaped shell purse, some featuring a sharkskin style lining. These pieces were produced as souvenirs for travellers heading to harbour and beachside towns, either with whole shells as the purse element, or with polished slices or segments of shells, particuarly mother of pearl, sometimes inscribed or printed with a phrase or name of the town it was bought from. We have two excellent lots: Lot 48 and Lot 168

All of these pieces - and more - are for sale at auction, ending on the 19th of April, 2022, but we're always uncovering more unusual and unique pieces every day. If you have an unusual collection or pieces to share with us or to consign to auction, let us know via facebook, follow our instagram, or email inquiries to [email protected].