Searching For Nantucket Light Ship Baskets

Nantucket basket
A lovely Nantucket basket by kcutler, $500..

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns." -George Eliot

What is it about autumn that makes one think about baskets? Childhood trips to pick apples... yes I think that has something to do with it.

Why is it I seem to be on a constant quest to find something? Too many episodes of the campy Relic Hunter with Tia Carrerre I fear. Artists always need fresh meat so I guess I have a good excuse. First it was the quest for Nantucket friendship bracelets on the web, a post that everyone and their mother has read by this point. I find the huge number of hits baffling and now we have a new friendship piece from Nantucket. The Nantucket basket which is commonly known as a friendship basket.

After lusting after pictures published in The Magazine Antiques (see the July issue "Nantucket lightship and friendship baskets" by Cynthia A. Drayton) and a welcome shanghai to the isle happened to coincide with one another I was off.

Three Dreaded Words...

Things actually started in Mystic Seaport in Connecticut where we wondered into a little store in Old Mystic Village. Franklin's General Store proved to be one of the best places to seek out in the shopping complex. Inside and lined up on a wall were numerous Nantucket baskets. Tightly woven and coming in all shapes and sizes they ranged from tiny (a couple of inches) to rather grand and impressive. Prices were around $25 and going into the hundreds. Just as mi compañero was going to head off into the sunset with her find she asked me to read the small print on the bottom of the basket. I obliged and first read something about it coming from Vermont. I thought that was a tad strange because weren't they supposed to be Nantucket baskets? Then came three dreaded words that were tiny as could be, "MADE IN CHINA". Let's just say she wasn't amused and the basket was put back. The fudge on the other hand which was genuine was not and enjoyed throughout the trip.

Sailing To The Island...

Once we were actually on the island of Nantucket we started to learn the history of the baskets and our hope of acquiring one rose. According to our guides and the Nantucket Light Ship Basket Museum which we visited and highly recommend, we learned that these baskets were created by sailors stationed on Light Ships which were essentially floating light houses. These men spent inordinate amounts of time cooped up on small ships and these provided something to do and bring back to loved ones.

Nantucket artist Basket kcutler

It wasn't until the Philippine born artist Jose Formoso Reyes came to the island of Nantucket and started creating a purse form of the friendship basket in the 1940's that the clamour for them really started. It was one of the few "IT" bags of its time, showing you've been to tony Nantucket and could bring back the ultimate gift. Known simply as Reyes baskets these are the classic design, with a woven lid and the addition of scrimshaw creating the iconic basket many of us associate with Nantucket today. Another popular type is the nesting basket set which, according to the Cynthia A. Drayton article, can take four hundred hours to complete.

Popping into Nantucket Basket Works we saw one of these breathtaking nested basket sets created by an actual Nantucket basket artist. It had an equally breathtaking price tag of $11,000.00 to $15,000.00. Meandering around the shopping district of Nantucket we found another one of those cute curio filled stores and yes, more baskets. This time the sign read Nantucket baskets so there was a glimmer of hope, although this was quickly dashed when they too turned out to be from China. The store keeper confirmed they were reproductions and directed us back to Nantucket Basket Works.

Baskets As Fine Art?

Lesson learned, there is a huge disparity between the price of an original and a reproduction and a reproduction is what most tourists will find themselves coming back with. In full disclosure we did not. Something else to consider is the actual market value for these baskets. At this point the market is rather low. Reproductions can easily be found for $5 or $10 dollars despite their original price tag of well over $100. Original Nantucket baskets also seem to be questionable in terms of appreciation and investment value with the exception of vintage pieces signed by artists such as Reyes. Baskets by Light Ship men are off the charts.

So comes my thinking... how about buying $11,000.00 worth of these Nantucket basket kits and going DIY. At least one has to come out nice. If a man on a Light Ship braving choppy shoals can do it why can't I? The truth is when you break down the number of hours needed to create a set of baskets and take away the galleries cut, the artist is likely making less in hourly wages than someone working at a fast food restaurant. Still, looking back on how these baskets were originally created out of love by the common sailor, it may be more feasible to actually do the same... possible mistakes and all. Some things at this point require so much labour to furnish that it becomes cost prohibative to flat out buy and that isn't nessarly a bad thing.

When Looking For Nantucket Baskets
- Ask questions! Ask the shop keeper if the basket is a reproduction. Most are made in Asia today and use plastic in place of whale bone.

- Just because a basket looks old, you're not assured of a real piece. Various tricks like soaking it in tea to age it and adding old carvings can make for an antique fake. Be sure you're dealing with honest sellers.

- Look for the basket to be signed.

- Do your homework as these baskets are an investment piece.

- As with all art buy it because you love it and take good care of it.

- If you're dead set on coming back with a basket but do not have deep pockets buy the Nantucket equivalent to a "I LOVE NY" shirt. It's a tiny gold Nantucket basket on a chain. Adorable these are found all over Cape Cod and even have a tiny penny inside for good luck. Look for ones that are signed for a real keepsake.

There is a really great YouTube video showing women making, Lightship Friendship Baskets here. Also for more on Nantucket artists read this article on Guide Book America.

More: If you're in the Cambridge MA area check out the shop Gray Mist on 360 Huron Ave. They have Nantucket basket making classes and a neat collection of basket and sailing themed goodies. As seen in Lucky magazine.

Also Read:
- Who Knew Nantucket Bracelets Would Be So Hard To Find
- Rwanda Path To Peace Basket Collection

Image: kcutler


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