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    Follow the Stories | San Jose, California (2010)

    Washoe Baskets: Weaving a Tale of Great Value


    Posted: 5.24.2010

    larger basket

    Now that it's known to be the work of Sarah Mayo, this basket could fetch up to $75,000 at auction, Shackelford says — three times the initial estimate.

    b&w photo

    This photo, which appears in Marvin Cohodas' 1979 book, Degikup: Washoe Fancy Basketry 1895-1935, shows Sarah Mayo (second from left) holding what is now believed to be the very basket (pictured at top) that Stephanie brought in to the San Jose ROADSHOW. (Image source: Postcard reprinted in Degikup: Washoe Fancy Basketry 1895-1935, by Marvin Cohodas)

    smaller basket

    Stephanie's two smaller Washoe baskets are also highly valuable, but so far have not been linked to any specific known maker.

    When appraiser Bruce Shackelford evaluated three Native American baskets brought to the San Jose ROADSHOW in August 2009, although he was unsure of their precise provenance, he instantly recognized them as belonging to the top tier of a category in which high-quality specimens have historically fetched half a million dollars. After consulting with his ROADSHOW colleagues, Bruce appraised Stephanie's collection at $60,000-$75,000. But as he cautioned Stephanie, his appraisal was approximate, conservative, and liable to change significantly if she could come by more information about the baskets' history. If a connection could be made to a specific maker, Bruce told her, then a single basket's value could triple. Stephanie says she was delighted at the number Bruce quoted. "Though I wish I hadn't said, 'Wow!' quite so much."

    These baskets were designed to construct a view of the Plains Indian lifestyle ... council fires, warpaths. Nothing to do with the Washoe. But it fit whites' idea of what Indians should be.

    While conducting the appraisal, Shackelford later told us, he thought it was likely that two of the baskets had been made by members of the Washoe tribe, whose baskets are more thoroughly documented, and therefore more valuable, than those of other tribes. The third, he conjectured, probably wasn't.

    "After the show, I didn't think too much more about it," he says. "But Katherine Hall, who's on the ROADSHOW crew and has a background in Indian art, sent me an e-mail a week later and said, check this out. I opened it up and it was a photograph of Sarah Mayo" — one of a very small number of acknowledged masters of the art — "holding not a similar basket, but the exact basket that we had seen. I just about fell over."

    With no association, the basket, the largest in Stephanie's collection, was worth about $25,000. Now that it is known to be the work of Sarah Mayo, said Shackelford, it could fetch up to $75,000. So far, the other two baskets have not been linked to a particular artist.

    Washoe baskets were not always considered to be fine art by whites; the very notion of "fine art" was foreign to the Native Americans who weaved baskets from willow, red bud and cat's claw and used them to store food and clothing, to winnow grain, and to carry their children. The idea of an artwork being an object intended for aesthetic contemplation evolved during the Enlightenment, a historical epoch confined to a particular place and time. Despite the superb craftsmanship required to weave baskets, they were made to be used.

    As the American West was settled, this began to change. In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the Western frontier, which marked the boundary between the United States and the yet unseized lands occupied by Native Americans, had ceased to exist. For hundreds of years prior, mostly white settlers had been pushing the frontier line westward, occasionally leapfrogging vast regions of the country to pan for gold in California, or to claim land under the Homestead Act; but by the end of the 19th century, the frontier line had disintegrated into discrete pockets scattered throughout the western half of the continent. As America came into being, native cultures were shunted aside and destroyed. Suddenly, for a sector of white America, the handicrafts that the vanishing tribes produced became almost unbearably poignant. A basket was no longer an everyday vessel in which to store food — or stash an umbrella — but a physical connection to a way of life that had existed for millennia yet would soon all but vanish.

    "Initially, white collectors were concerned that the baskets show signs of use," says Marvin Cohodas, a professor of art history at the University of British Columbia, "because that made them seem more authentic. But the indigenous people started adopting metal and ceramic containers, which were easier to get, and the weaving was put up for sale. So once they couldn't identify a basket as authentic because of signs of use, they had to come up with something else."

    Amy Cohn, a Carson City, Nevada, woman who owned and operated a clothing store in the 1890s, sensed an opening in the market. She had noticed that her domestic, Dat So La Lee (also known as Louisa Keyser), was a skilled basket weaver. Cohn became a major promoter of Keyser's work and, by delivering lectures to arts societies, elevated the profile of Native American art in general. Cohn's motives, however, were not purely art-historical: as the market for Native basketry grew, so did Cohn's business; and in order to increase the baskets' cachet and potential value, Cohn seized on the natural imagery woven into them — imagery that was purely representational — and fabricated deep, metaphorical meanings that would resonate with white settlers' notions of the noble savage.

    "She invented them totally," Cohodas says. "They were designed to construct a view of what they considered the Plains Indian lifestyle. Council fires, warpaths, that kind of stuff. Nothing to do with the Washoe. But it fit the idea of what Indians should be, the idea that was promoted in the Wild West shows. ... The idea that an image could narrate a story or reveal a philosophy is part of the Enlightenment definition of a work of art. And so, the baskets became quite valuable as works of art."

    If asked why they depicted horses, butterflies, and abstract geometrics in their baskets, said Cohodas, weavers like Sarah Mayo and Louisa Keyser would have said, To make them pretty. Despite the distortions imposed on their work by well-meaning, if misguided, enthusiasts like Cohn, the baskets of the Great Basin Indians continue to appeal to collectors. They are perfectly crafted, beautiful and rare. And unlike almost every Native American artwork, thanks to the photographs and writings of Amy Cohn and a handful of others, with luck and hard work a collector can establish provenance and see a family heirloom's value triple instantly.

    See the San Jose, California (2010) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    For more on this subject, see:
    Degikup: Washoe Fancy Basketry 1895-1935, by Marvin Cohodas, Fine Arts Gallery of the University of British Columbia, 1979.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Tribal Arts category:
    Shaman Spirit Mask, ca. 1900 (Madison, 2010)
    Was There Head-Shrinking in Fiji? (Chattanooga, 2009)
    Geronimo: Beyond the Name (San Antonio, 2008)
    Nampeyo: Grande Dame of Hopi Pottery (Louisville, 2008)
    Navajo Chief's Blankets: Three Phases (Tucson, 2007)
    Counting Coups (Counting What?) (Bismarck, 2006)
    Lakota Dictionary (Tampa, 2006)

    Ben Phelan is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. He has been a contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 2007.