Wine Antiques and Artifacts

By Dr. Fred Frye,  Collector of  Wine Antiques


Examining a cup

Examining a cup

” I became interested in the various articles connected with wine antiques,  storing, tasting and display of wines 50 years ago!   As in any collecting endeavor, the search is the best part.”  FF

The Sommelier’s familiar French taster with its concave and convex surface irregularities in the disguise of decoration provide reflective surfaces to view the wine and a convenient form to taste it.  Silver is invariably the antique cup grapesmaterial of choice because it is resilient and reflective.  Owners often engraved their names and vineyards on their tasters whose single flat handles often accommodated a neck cord.  Wine professionals value their tasters as both working and ceremonial accoutrements.

Below a few of Fred’s extensive collection of tasters and tasting spoons

Fred series 3Used as early as the 14th century BC in Minoan Crete the saucer-shaped taster has been essential in the production of wine right to the present  time.  In order to determine a wine’s quality, the color, clarity, bouquet, and taste of the wine must be assessed.  The prospective buyer doing the tasting is looking for a balance of fruit, tannin, acidity, and alcohol in order to make a decision as to whether to purchase the wine.  To do this a small vessel is required, hence the development of the “taster”

The earliest examples of British tasters date from the seventeenth century.  Early examples did not have a handle and were in the shape of a flat bowl.  After 1700 most cups did have a handle.


Collectable and highly desirable wine Tastevin such as these are beautifully wrought by silversmiths for the wealthy or somelliers often include a date centuries old.  Like the one below dated 1783

Fred series 1


Tasting cups have been made of porcelain and glass, but few have survived..  The majority of surviving examples now found are of silver.  The history of silver wine tasters reaches back over six centuries and there are several recorded references to them in fourteenth and fifteenth century manuscripts.  An English  will dated 1426 mentions “A tastour of selver with my owne merke made in the bottom.” 


Later in the fifteenth century during the Wars of the Roses an Act of 1477-78 placed an embargo on the export of gold and silver from England to the Continent.  Wine tasters were specifically exempt from this order when used professionally.   ( “Any merchant going over the Sea to buy any Wine to be brought into the realm, as far to carry with him only a little Cup called a Taster (un taster or shewer ) for wine.”


  Many more “taste vins” were produced on the Continent since wine was being made there. They had handles so that they might be placed on a string and put around one’s neck.  A thumb piece began to appear in the later part of the eighteenth century.  The bowls are slightly domed instead of flat. 

Below a Zodiac coin on the bottom of a tastevin, and the lower photo has Scorpio on the bottom of the cup with the owner’s initial ‘M’ engraved within the body of the scorpion

antique cup zodiac

 antique cup scorpionSnake handles appear early in the18th century, and in many variations: some with nods, others with two heads, or with arrows. While there is no official explanation for the snake, I prefer the account that it was introduced to represent the symbol ofAesculapius, the Greek God of Physicians, indicating that the wine cures! The French paradoxe before it was discovered!Fred series 6


Beginning in the 19th century, the Continental element appeared and included the ribs and cupules as part of the bowl.  The ribs reflected the color and clarity of the white wines and the “cupules” to reflect the nature of the red wine.

Bordeaux style cup

Fred series 4







Chalices and Wedding Cups

antique large cup full view

Throughout Burgundy France, wedding cups were a traditional part of a wedding ceremony.  A bride would offer her groom a drink from the cup, thus swearing their vows and sealing them with a solemn taste of wine.  They are still in use for special ceremonies within fraternal wine organizations in celebrating newly elected members of their groups.


Wedding cups made in Normandy France, are smaller than those of Burgundy, where the majority of Chalices were produced.   They were used during the wedding and also for family events such as the baptism of a child.  Also they were used on death beds with holy water and palms. These traditions still endure with many Burgundian families and many Grandmothers prefer to offer a wedding cup as a gift.

Hallmarks became very important after the French Revolution and were used by silversmiths throughout the country.  The value of the silver used in a sterling silver artifact is often antique large cup with nameis represented by a Minerva Head.  Individual silversmiths had personalized marks.  These were important to the marketplace as they served as a guarantee of silver content, quality and origin. 


Before 1789, typically they are difficult to date or explain, but most had four different hallmarks. If intact and not rubbed out, noted would be:

1. the name of the silversmith

2. his town or village

3. the main town 

4. the year.


Photos by Payne Johnson 



  1. Sherry Cassell /

    I recently purchased at auction a cup just like the cup to the right of the caption Bordeaux style cup. Do you know what the figure in the center of the cup represents? Any information about the cup would be wonderful.


  2. Dear Sir,

    I am wine silversmith-Master silversmiths based in FRANCE for 40 years.
    In my website,, you can see many models of winetastes which depends on the region of wine in France : Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Bourgogne, …

    You can visit our website or contact me (it will be interesting to discuss with you about wine in Usa.
    Best Regards

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