The first time collector Debbie Onie saw a Maine Indian fancy basket, she did not know what to make of it. “I had never seen anything like it,” she says of the four-inch-high fuchsia-colored basket with a matching lid that her husband, Larry, brought home one day in 1978. Although the Onies didn’t consider themselves collectors at the time, they did own some 20 baskets of various origins, all in natural colors that blended well with the traditional furnishings of their Colonial-style home. This new addition, small as it was, made a statement that the couple simply could not ignore.
The only information Larry had obtained from the dealer who had sold the basket to him was that it had been made in Maine by Penobscot Indians. So he and his wife took their new possession to a local auction house for a free appraisal in hopes of learning more about it. “The specialist took one look at it and told us it was from Hong Kong,” Debbie recalls. “We were disappointed, of course, but we weren’t so sure that he was right.”
That appraisal experience inspired the Onies, who are both teachers, to delve further. They contacted dealers, collectors, and scholars knowledgeable in Native American handicrafts and eventually discovered that the size, shape, materials, and colors of their basket indicated that it was indeed of Penobscot origin and dated to about 1930.
For the tribes that live in the state today – the Maliseet, the Micmac, the Passamaquoddy, and the Penobscot – known collectively as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawn” – basketmaking remains a significant part of daily life. A creation myth common to each of Maine’s four tribes relates how their ancestors emerged from a brown-ash tree when the Creator split it with an arrow. For thousands of years, these peoples have used ash splints to craft baskets for personal and community use and, for the past century, to sell to the general public.
Maine baskets fall into either of two categories: work baskets, sturdy woven wares used for gathering, storing, and transporting foodstuffs, and fancy baskets, decorative designs crafted for the tourist trade. Fancy basket production started in the 1880s, when vacationers began to flock to Maine resorts and spas such as Bar Harbor and Poland Spring. The native artisans who began to congregate at these places offered their handiwork for sale, finding an enormous appetite for delicate woven handkerchief baskets, powder-puff holders, purses, vases, wastebaskets, thimble baskets, candy dishes, knitting baskets, cradles, and fans.
Most fancy baskets were woven by women, who used both brown-ash splints for their baskets’ armature and the broad leaves of sweet grass (also commonly called Seneca grass) for the wales. Molds at the base helped hold the ash stakes in position while the artisans created intricate shapes. Both natural and synthetic dyes captured bold colors like strawberry red and corncob gold. Men undertook the tasks of finding and preparing the materials and constructing molds and tools.
The market for fancy baskets flourished until 1929, when the stock market crash brought an end to the grand summer retreats that the well-to-do had enjoyed earlier in the century. Although the Wabanaki continued to make baskets in the decades that followed, demand for their work was limited. Today the intricate designs, bold colors, and imaginative forms dating from the 1880s through the 1930s have found new appreciation among collectors.
“If you’re lucky, you can find examples with unfaded colors that have probably been stored away in a dark place for many years,” says Debbie Onie. “We have a wonderful collection of bright oranges, greens, and pinks as well as beautiful muted blues, reds, browns, and yellows.”
What began as a research project 21 years ago has become an obsession for the Onies. “This has taken over our lives,” Debbie says of the 700 to 800 Maine Indian fancy baskets that now fill the couple’s New England home. “We no longer have room for our clothes!”
One difference in the market that the Onies have noticed since they began their collection two decades ago is that vintage fancy baskets in good condition have become increasingly difficult to find. “We used to come across interesting pieces at antique shows and in little shops on the back roads of New England,” Larry recalls. “Now it’s more of a treasure hunt.”
According to the Onies, collectors should look to shops, flea markets, and auctions in Maine and other parts of New England to find antique and vintage fancy baskets. Pieces from distant parts of the country may also turn up in on-line auction sites, sometimes because their original owners took them along with them when they moved. Expect to pay anywhere from $25 to $300 for a fancy basket, depending on size, color, age, rarity, and condition.
Whether you are searching for these baskets in shops or viewing them at a museum, Larry and Debbie ask that you pay careful attention to the exquisite artistry that went into their construction. “The basket makers were so talented. Each creation is truly a work of art,” Debbie says. “Both the artistry and the makers have yet to receive the full recognition they should. But I think that’s beginning to change.”