I am frequently asked by people, “My grandparents have passed away and they have all of these old decanters in their home. What should I do with them?” My first questions is are they full of whiskey? If so then contact Bill Thomas or Jared Hyman at Jack Rose. They might be interested in purchasing them from you. Don’t expect a high price if they are ceramic decanters because you cannot see the whiskey and it is impossible to know if the whiskey is still good to drink. It is a real crap shoot whether the whiskey is of quality because the cork could have leaked air causing the contents to become oxidized. If they are empty then it becomes more problematic.
To understand the value of empty decanters, first you have to look at the history of decanters. In the 19th century there were figural flasks made in the days before bottled whiskey. These are anything from flasks with people like George Washington or Ben Franklin embossed into the glass or figures like pigs or ears of corn. Sometimes special decanters like when I.W, Bernheim released a special I. W. Harper canteen decanters for the 1895 Grand Army of the Republic Encampment in Louisville. All of these decanters have value. It is best to check with an antique dealer for the value of these decanters as they can be worth up to hundreds of dollars.
After prohibition there was a standardization of bottle sizes, and decanters did not become popular until the 1950s. The earliest decanters of this era were glass bottles from molds and many are very interesting in shape. Brown-Forman hired an architect that specialized in modern design and released a series of very “space age” designs as holiday releases of Old Forester. Other distilleries quickly followed suit and released many glass decanters at the holidays. They often had a Christmas theme but others had a more year round design. Cabin Still had hunting scenes on several of their decanters and Kentucky Tavern had a Treasure Island design. These decanters have some value to collectors and designers looking for art glass, but it is not much value. In the $10-20 range has been my experience but it could go higher if it is a very interesting shape.
In the 1960s ceramic figure decanters became popular. These were truly mass produced with thousands of them being sold. Beam was a leader in these decanters, but they were not alone. Ezra Brooks, Lionstone, Old Taylor and others released shapes ranging from the Old Taylor distillery castle to the Cabin Still Hillbilly, to Elvis. The more rare and valuable ones were created for special events or groups. There may only be hundreds of these type of decanters and they will have a greater value to collectors. Most of the other decanters have limited value and you can usually find them at flea markets for as little as a dollar. If it is an iconic figure like the Old Taylor castle or Mount Rushmore it may go for more. I have seen them in antique stores for as much as $30.
Your best bet for selling these old bottles is to an antique dealer, but don’t expect a high value as they want to buy cheap enough to sell for a profit. A better bet would to find a decanter or bottle collecting group and let them know what you have for sale. They might give a better price on individual decanters if they are hard to find. Just don’t plan on sending your kids to college on a collection of empty decanters.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl