The 4½in (11cm) long Victorian lady lawn tennis player’s skirt lifter c.1870s, the design incorporating crossed racquets and three tennis balls, sold for £3200 (plus 17.5% buyer’s premium) against an estimate of £75-100 at the May 21-22 auction in London.
Such items were used by Victorian women to clip up their full-length skirts, in this case above the lawn to avoid grass stains during a game of tennis.
This example was consigned by the UK trade and bought by an overseas private buyer online competing with an overseas phone bidder, and the hefty price is thought to be an auction high for any skirt lifter.
One of the earlier bidders at Budd’s sale was Carole Walker, an expert who has written A History and Guide to Collecting Ladies’ Antique Skirt Lifters (2016), available on Amazon. She told ATG she arranged a phone bid, but “after placing a final bid of £260 (which at that price I thought was on the excessive side for a base-metal, smallish skirt lifter), I listened as, unbelievably, the bidding went higher and higher.
“I was amazed when the bidding reached £1000 and was absolutely flabbergasted when the hammer went down at £3200 – an unprecedented price. I do believe this is a record price for a skirt lifter.”
Walker said the highest price she had paid for a skirt lifter is “nearly £1000 for a solid silver item dated 1836 and crafted by a well-known silversmith”, which she believes is the previous top result for one.
The auction was a sports memorabilia sale and the tennis connection could be what carried the price upwards, with a classic battle on the day between two bidders both desperate to win.
Walker believes that a similar skirt lifter went for sale some years ago and reached a higher price than the estimate, "but I think it only went for something like £250-300". The Lawn Tennis Association at Wimbledon has a similar skirt lifter in its museum.
Skirt lifter market
Walker has been collecting skirt lifters for about 15 to 20 years now, but her interest was orginally sparked from writing a biography of Caroline Chisholm, a woman who in the mid-nineteenth century was as well known as Florence Nightingale.
"In fact Nightingale helped Chisholm before she left for the Crimea," she said. "Chisholm’s work was in the field of free emigration to Australia. Chisholm is well known and revered in Australia, but sadly in the county and country of her birth (Northamptonshire) she is hardly known of at all. Hence an interest in all things Victorian led to finding an unusual item at an antiques fair, finding out it was a skirt lifter, and one item became two and so on."
As for this collecting market, there are number of collectors, both in this country and in the US.
Walker said "there does seem fewer skirt lifters on the market now, but having 160 different items, I am not collecting quite as keenly as I once did - though there are always different solid brass scissor type skirt lifters that catch my eye as well as the odd ones that I haven’t seen before."
Some items that collectors usually want in their collection are the Fyfe’s Penny Farthing, the boxed Grappler Skirt Lifter, and the Royal Surprise skirt lifter - the skirt lifter is on a chain with a bracelet to go over the arm of the wearer.
"An unusual item, one I do not have, is the skirt lifter in the shape of a hand," said Walker.
Some of Walker's skirt lifters are on display at the Fairlynch Museum in Budleigh Salterton in east Devon. The museum is open 2-4.30 pm every afternoon until the end of October and entrance is free. She added: "From the beginning of October until the end of December a larger collection of my skirt lifters will be displayed at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter."