A green-and-yellow basket or a beribboned design — these are among myriad styles you can find by local Native American tribes, says appraiser John Bottero
For thousands of years, Maine’s indigenous peoples have been weaving ash splints into lightweight, durable, beautiful baskets. The initial utilitarian forms became increasingly ornate in the late 19th century, when members of the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot tribes set up tents in coastal towns and sold their wares to summer tourists. Many artisans employed mineral- and plant-based dyes, wove in sweetgrass for long-lasting aroma, and adorned their creations with ribbon-shaped designs and ornamental twists known as “porcupine curls.” As a collector and appraiser of antiques, I have a soft spot for this genre of basketwork, with its rich, golden patina and seemingly innumerable iterations. Storage baskets, sewing baskets (with matching needle, thimble, and scissors cases), knitting baskets with holes in their covers for dispensing yarn, square handkerchief baskets, and purses can be unearthed at auctions, stores, and flea markets for $10 to $200 (or more) apiece. Because ash becomes brittle over time and natural dyes fade in direct sunlight, many old baskets appear worn or washed out — but are still lovely. Those that have been forgotten in attics and closets for decades are the best preserved and fetch a premium when discovered.
John Bottero is the vice president of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries. Constantly in pursuit of incredible finds, he sees dozens of people each week on Thomaston’s Free Appraisal Day and travels the state helping Mainers bring their collections and valuable heirlooms to market.