What you see: A white delftware fuddling cup made in London and dating to the mid-17th century. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.
The expert: Richard Hird, specialist in the ceramics department at Sotheby’s.
This piece is known as a “fuddling cup.” What does “fuddling” mean here? It means to confuse or intoxicate the person who was handling the object.
Does the finished form tell us anything about how the cup was made? I don’t think anyone knows for certain, but the vessel was probably made in a two-part mold, and the entwined clay handles were probably twisted by hand and applied to the vessel. It’s quite a simple thing to make.
Where was it used? It could have been in a private home, but it was very much a tavern object. It was a drinking game. It was certainly meant to be in a tavern setting.
How did the drinking game work? There’s some speculation here, but each container would be filled with a different kind of alcoholic drink, and it would be shaken until they were blended. The object was to try to identify each spirit in each vessel.
How do the spirits mix? When you look at it, you can’t quite see it, but within the three chambers there’s a hole that connects all three together. It looks like three separate cups, but they are connected by the hole into one big cup. You have to really look in there to see the piercing. The bulbous shapes in the lower part is where they touch, where the hole has been made.
The cup is pretty small, measuring three and a half inches tall. But do we know how much liquid it could hold? I don’t know, and I don’t know if there were specific measurements like that. Fuddling cups all tend to be small-size. They don’t get any bigger than that.
How do we know that the fuddling cup is probably from the mid-17th century? So far, there are nine recorded with inscribed dates. The earliest is 1633, and the latest is 1649. They probably contain [were probably made in] the second half of the 17th century, but we don’t have dates.
Were fuddling cups popular then? It’s hard to judge. It’s a rare object, but they do appear at auction almost annually. Quite a few survive, but a lot were probably lost as well. It was quite a popular drinking game.
The cup is white, with no decoration. Is that typical? I guess it is typical, in a way. You do find them decorated in blue, in chinoiserie style. Having it painted would be more expensive, and it was for a tavern. White was the cheapest option, in that sense.
What condition is it in? I see some chips in the glaze here and there. The chips are actually a good sign. If there were no chips, you start to question the age of the object. It’s over 200 years old. It has to have signs of age. If it’s perfect, it would raise questions. And it does have some restoration around the rim of one of the vessels.
This was a novelty object. Does its having been restored matter less to a collector? I wouldn’t say so. Early 17th century objects are rare and becoming rarer on the market. People are starting to turn a blind eye to issues because they don’t come around that often.
Does it show any signs of wear on its interior? No, but it’s quite unusual to see that. On something this small, the vessel spout is probably two centimeters in diameter. You can’t put much in there.
Is the fuddling cup connected at all to puzzle jugs? I think so. I don’t know if you’d find a puzzle jug that early in the 17th century, but it’s the similar idea of a tavern game and confusing the user.
Do collectors see fuddling cups as art objects, or do they try to use them at least once? I think they do see them as art objects, but I’d be tempted to try to use it to see how it would work.
What is it like to hold this cup in your hands? It’s a very light object. It almost fits in the palm of one hand.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
This is the closest I’ll get to showcasing a jigsaw puzzle on this blog, so here’s a shout-out to my faithful suppliers Chris at Serious Puzzles and Andy at Eureka! Puzzles & Games in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Massachusetts. Thanks!
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