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Treasures: Vintage Vuitton in state of disrepair

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The name "Louis Vuitton" is associated with high-end fashion, but is this suitcase valuable?

The name “Louis Vuitton” is associated with high-end fashion, but is this suitcase valuable?

Dear Helaine and Joe: I would like to know the value of this Louis Vuitton suitcase. I have seen a few sell online for $2,000 to $3,000, but without the travel stickers similar to the ones found on mine. A local dealer has offered me $300. Should I take it? -- J.J.O'B, Cape Coral, Fla.

Dear J.J.O'B: The story of this piece of luggage starts when a 14-year-old boy walked 249 miles from his home in Chabouilla, France, where he was born, to Paris. The lad's name was Louis Vuitton (1821-1892), and he would eventually establish one of the world's greatest fashion houses.

As he walked toward Paris, Vuitton took a number of odd jobs to support himself. But once he reached the big city, he became an apprentice "layetier" -- someone who expertly packs trunks with the finery of the wealthy individuals who employ him.

Today, it may seem a bit odd that packing trunks was a profession, but Vuitton became so expert at this craft that Emperor Napoleon III appointed him to be the layetier to his wife, Empress Eugenie. Through this experience with French royalty, Vuitton began to develop ideas about what made a good travel trunk.

His great breakthrough was the flattop and flat-bottom trunk that could be stacked one on top of another. Before this innovation, trunks tended to have rounded tops and could not be stacked. When the wealthy traveled, they often had a number of trunks, and this Vuitton innovation meant that the aristocrats could have even more luggage on their travels and store it more efficiently.

Vuitton opened his first store on the Rue Neuvre des Capucines in 1854, and the flat-surfaced trunk, covered with gray "Trianon" waterproof canvas (which made the piece lightweight and airtight), first appeared in 1858. Over the years, Vuitton exhibited at international exhibitions such as the Paris Exposition of 1867, establishing a reputation for extremely well-made luxury trunks and traveling bags.

These containers had hard, thick surfaces that protected their precious and fashionable cargo from the harsh treatment they received during transport on trains and carriages. In 1896, Louis Vuitton's son George introduced the familiar "LV"-monogram toile-canvas design that is now a fashion icon.

The history of Louis Vuitton is fascinating, but we need to focus now on the particular piece of luggage owned by J.J.O'B. The travel decals on this piece are really mini-travel posters that collectors like to find intact and still beautiful to the eye.

These decals were first made around 1890, and they quickly became popular with the traveling public. Unfortunately, the examples on the piece in today's question have seen better days. In fact, they are in such deplorable condition that they are now sad fragments of their former selves.

Even sadder, the same can be said of the Louis Vuitton suitcase itself. This piece is in a poor state of preservation, and most collectors who are interested in this sort of item want examples in pristine condition, with no smells or mold.

Yes, some vintage Louis Vuitton suitcases can bring $2,000 to $3,000 at auction, but not this one. Based on what we see in the photographs, we think the $300 offer is fair-market value.

(Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. E-mail them at treasures@knology.net.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com)