Treasures: Tantalus set is mismatched but attractive

Are these decanters and glasses original to the box?

Are these decanters and glasses original to the box?

Dear Helaine and Joe:

Attached are photographs of an item for your evaluation. It was purchased in the U.K. in 1976. There are no markings.

Thank you,


Dear J.V.:

This is an elegant mahogany box that contains four decanters and six small glasses. The box itself appears to have string inlay and ball feet. Inside, the pair of decanters in front appear to have cut ball stoppers, but the pair in back are less elaborately embellished and have another type of stopper.

There are six glasses with square bases and the bowls may be flute cut. It looks like there may be room at the top of the swing-out doors for six more glasses, but it is a little hard to be certain from the photographs. Getting to the bottom line, we feel the set has been assembled, which means that the decanters and perhaps the glasses did not start out life with the box.

The front pair of decanters and the back pair are mismatched. The front pair look like they were cut in the so-called “Harvard” pattern and this is consistent with their ball stoppers. The pair would probably be from the late 19th or early 20th century.

The rear pair of decanters have square sections and are a little plain Jane but may have been part of the original set. But be this as it may, the front and the back pair of decanters are out of character with one another and we feel the rear pair may be either older than the front or of lesser quality. In fact, we believe the front pair may be American in origin and the rear pair British.

It is a little hard to be sure about the age of the box. The elegant container is in a form associated with the English Regency (stylistically 1795-1837), and from the wear points we see on the lid, it may be of the period. But it could very well be from the English Edwardian period (1901-1910). Only an in-person examination would tell the tale for sure.

The piece of equipment is often called a “Tantalus,” in reference to the Greek story about the mythological figure who angered Zeus and was forced to spend eternity standing in a pool of water underneath a low-hanging fruit tree. According to the legend, every time Tantalus was thirsty the water would recede so he could not drink. and every time he was hungry, the fruit on the tree would be just out of reach.

A Tantalus in our world is a device holding liquor that was locked so the contents were just out of the reach of servants — visible but unattainable. Some of these pieces were nothing more than cases with a locking bar that ran over the tops of the stoppers so the stoppers could not be removed. Others had one or more glass sides, and still others — such as the one in today’s question — were solid, tabletop boxes.

We feel like the set is incomplete and put together from bits and pieces. Still it is attractive and probably has a retail value in the $750 range.

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