Dear Helaine and Joe:
I would like to know more about the tantalus in the enclosed photographs. This piece once belonged to my mother-in-law. Any information including the value would be appreciated.
M. M., Staten Island, N.Y.
Dear M. M.:
This is a fairly standard three-bottle tantalus, but first, there are two pieces of important pieces of information that was left out of the letter but were visible in the photographs.
There are two small rectangular plaques on the wooden frame that appear to be ivory, but we are almost 100 percent sure are actually celluloid (also called ivorine). One plaque has "Regd No 425022," and the other reads "Made in England." These tell a lot of the story.
Before discussing the piece, we are going to briefly explore the derivation of the name tantalus. The word is derived from the Greek legend of Tantalus, who was supposed to have been a very bad man. One legend says he was invited to eat at Zeus's table and stole the food of the gods (ambrosia and nectar) to give to mortals.
But more seriously, he is said to have sacrificed his son, cut him up, boiled him and served him at a banquet for the gods. Thus, he was sentenced as a filicide (child killer) and cannibal to the lowest portion of the underworld, where he spent eternity in a pool of water overhung by a fruit tree.
Every time Tantalus went to eat a piece of fruit, the tree branches would withdraw so he could not grasp the fruit, and when he went to drink the water, the pool receded, leaving him both hungry and thirsty forever. The myth formed the basis for the English word "tantalize," and a "tantalus" was a liquor decanter or decanters in some sort of frame that prevented the stoppers from being removed without a key.
It was designed to keep servants from drinking their employer's liquor. In other words, the servants could see the liquor, but they could not drink it. Thus, they were tantalized by the contents of the decanter or decanters in the tantalus.
The example in today's question has three cut glass decanters with faceted ball stoppers. The cut glass pattern is a rather standard "Harvard" design. The English registration number of 425022 was issued in 1904, but the tantalus could have been made anytime over the next few years. We think the piece is probably circa 1910.
The wooden portion of the tantalus frame appears to be mahogany, which is more desirable than the oak examples that were also made in this time frame. Looking closely at the photographs, we see a number of scratches on the wood and some losses to the finish. The wood also appears to be very grungy. But it does have its original key and the mechanism is apparently in good working order.
Tantaluses are rather commonly found and this one should sell at auction in the $200 to $250 range and retail at around $500.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you'd like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at email@example.com. If you'd like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.