Collecting Nantucket Baskets by Paul Madden
Forward article included in David Wood's NHA 1994 Exhibition catalog "The Lightship Baskets of Nantucket A Continuing Craft"
I remember well that day in August 1966 when, on our way to Nantucket, a lady said to me, "If you are an antiques dealer, then you will love the lighthouse baskets that are made on the island." I romanticized the light-house keepers hanging over the railings, lifting on ropes their baskets filled with a delicious lunch! However, within minutes of being on-island, I was surprised to learn that those famous baskets were actually (made on Light-SHIPS) and carried by Nantucket ladies as their badge of exclusiveness.
Our first summer on Nantucket was in 1967, and we had a small shop on Old North Wharf. I learned that there were only a few collectors of antique Nantucket lightship baskets and they appreciated them not only for their great craftsmanship but also basket making represented an important part of Nantucket's cultural history.
Among the very first lightship basket collectors was David Wood. I had been told in 1967 that he had amassed a large and wonderful collection. He possessed a great knowledge of the history of the baskets and their various makers. Another early collector and dealer was Gwen Gaillard, the restaurateur. She had a shop on Main Street next to Murray's Toggery. In her shop there was a large mix of furniture, china, paintings, nautical antiques and antique Nantucket lightship baskets. Her taste in baskets leaned to late 19th century types with that "well-used" deep patina. Gwen personally carried various types of baskets- from her over-sized special order Jose Reyes covered bag to an occasional choice antique open basket. Gwen's excellent pioneering taste in antique baskets helped to direct me down a most rewarding road.
Frank Sylvia, the antiques dealer on Ray's Court, often had a choice lightship basket. I remember once in the early 1970s I spotted a wonderful small swing handled oval basket with a silver label applied to the handle. It was probably made by Captain Sandsbury and it was pre-1900. Mr. Sylvia said, to my regret, that he was "holding" it for Mrs. Paul Mellon, a famous name in collecting, which only confirmed to me that lightship baskets were being discovered by the discerning.
During the first couple of summers there were not a lot of fine baskets available. I probably bought and sold only about a half-dozen average-quality lightship baskets. However, in late summer 1968 something happened that changed my excitement about the antique baskets. While I was selling some antiques for Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Folger Webster of upper Main Street, Mrs. Webster showed me a whole closet filled with wonderful antique lightship baskets. Many of them were family-made baskets and some were inherited from the Mitchell sisters, who had lived down the street. Stacks of baskets filled the shelves. I asked Mrs. Webster if she would sell me one for an anniversary present. She pulled out the large collection and said that I could pick one and only one. After careful examination I picked a medium-size basket with a wooden hinge. It had narrow cane staves, a slender, beautifully carved handle, and a rich, "grungy" patina. Mr. Webster, a shrewd businessman, clearly implied he would sell the basket only if the price would be above the market. Since the going price then was around $50. I offered $75 to ensure the sale. I consider that very basket even today my favorite basket and one of the very finest I have ever seen. The proportions are flawless, the details superb, and the color is wondrous.
With that anniversary basket I began a long journey into dealing and collecting lightship baskets that now number close to two thousand. In the beginning when the price range was $50 to $150, I had dozens of baskets to choose from. There was little resistance to the prices. The collectors gobbled up all types in varying quality. By the late 1970s the price had crept up to the $300 to $350 range. The top collector now wanted a basket that was 19th century, in very good condition with good proportions, and with rich and aged color.
I have found that the overriding desirable factor in determining a great basket has been, and probably should be, the color. The discerning collector has always wanted that special, rich, deep-toast color that sometimes occurs when many varied strands of weaving darken with age into a beautiful pattern of lights and darks. If the color is right and the basket has the right proportions, the condition is very good, and the details reflect careful craftsmanship, then it's a great basket.
Starting in the mid 1970s I ran a weekly advertisement in the Inquirer and Mirror "Wanted to Buy: Old Nantucket lightship baskets." I had many responses from people wanting to sell me covered handbags by Jose Reyes and other makers from the 1950s. It seemed that the ladies of the 1970s really needed much more room in their bags for their daily necessities and wanted to order a much larger size. At first, I showed little interest for I didn't think there was much of a market for the smaller sizes. However, when the nouveaux riches came around the Point, they wanted to carry a basket that didn't look "nouveau." They wanted an old dark basket, one that would give the appearance of old money. They certainly didn't want to swing into the Opera House Restaurant with a new "blondie" basket. Selling that aged basket was what some might refer to as "instant Nantucket." So there began a whole new market for the used handbags, and the more ivory the better. Some baskets were so large and loaded with ivory that chiropractors would have to reset the carrier's shoulders once a week. I bought and sold hundreds of dark, richly patinaed Jose Reyes handbags. His "Friendship baskets" (as Reyes preferred to call them) were simple statements decorated with a carved whale. The new, larger baskets were decorated with scrimshawed fish, birds, dogs, and engraved plaques of the owner's new Nantucket rose-covered "cottage."
Reyes was not the best weaver of baskets but he certainly made the sexiest. The size of early Reyes handbags often was not very practical, but the proportions sure looked great on a lady's arm. The deep oval silhouette, the long simple handle, and the great color of a Reyes basket made it an instant classic-one that is recognizable around the world.
About 1980, when the prices for antique baskets reached the $400 level, there was a definite resistance to paying more. This lasted for a year or so until several off-island dealers began to drum up the basket market to the folk art collector. They advertised choice little baskets, and labeled nests appeared in national advertisements with big prices. Prices for the baskets at auction jumped. The old-time collectors shook their heads with disbelief that someone would pay a thousand dollars for a basket. I knew that if I wanted to be a player in the basket market, I, too, would have to pay the big prices. During the 1970s, I bought and sold many collections that I had helped assemble, and my old time collectors were rewarded with handsome profits. Now, however, as the auctions slowly took over the market, my supply diminished greatly and I had to play the competitive game of bidding at the retail price level. In the mid 1980s, I even paid $3200 for a rare antique covered basket-top price, yes! but oh, what a lovely one it is.
The early nineties has seen, as with many other collectibles, a softness in the prices for antique baskets and even somewhat of a reversal in their value. This is a very normal adjustment based on the lack of great baskets coming to market and also a reflection of general economic times.
Then a shocker occurred in January 1994, at Sotheby's auction sale of the Nina Fletcher Little collection in New York. A very fine nest of six labeled lightship baskets made by Davis Hall sold with all commissions for the staggering price of $118,000. That's about $20,000 each! Obviously, two parties wanted them badly, but this only confuses the real value of the market under normal conditions. If I had been asked to appraise that Davis Hall nest, I would have placed a value in the $20,000 range. How the real market will adjust to that auction sale, only time will tell.
So, with that in mind, as you peer through the exhibition display cases and carefully scrutinize these truly great examples of basket making, one can only imagine the old lightship basket makers turning and twisting in Prospect Hill. Little could they have imagined that their magnificently crafted baskets, woven at sea and originally selling for but a few dollars, would become so studied and appreciated.