Shaker Baskets: Tips on Collecting – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – January 2004
Text and photos By Martha Wetherbee
This year saw record prices being paid for American wood splint baskets, especially noteworthy were auctions involving Shaker antiques that occurred this past summer. A Shaker basket took center stage, selling for over $63,000. In the general category of well-made antique American basketry, interest seems to have increased among collectors.
As with any item of scarcity, prices for good baskets have increased as interest, and hence demand, has increased. So how does a collector know if they are looking ar a good basket worth thousands or a Shaker basket worth tens of thousands of dollars? Just like the basket itself, the deeper you look, the more complex the answer becomes.
There are some steps that everyone can take to eliminate the potential candidates for a “sleeper” or a “find.”
Use the “Null Hypothesis”
If every basket that was brought to me for verification as Shaker were indeed Shaker, there would have been a need for thousands more Shaker basket makers during the 1800s. Assume that the basket you are considering is not a Shaker. Just because a basket is beautiful does not mean that it is a Shaker basket. There were notable basket makers in the same region of the Shaker villages whose skill of the craft rivaled that of the Shakers. The Native Americans, who originally taught the Shakers the craft, excelled at basketwork. Basket makers from germany made fine skein out of splint from the willow, which was woven into beautiful basket designs. In fact, there baskets in many ways equalled the quality of the Shakers and are oftentimes confused as being Shaker made. They even appear in Shaker villages because they were purchased by the Shakers themselves.
Never Let the Price Be a Guide to Value
If there is widespread knowledge of a type of antique along with a rapid flurry of sales of a particular style, price will be one indicator that can be used to determine value. Often in the area of basketry, a lack of specific knowledge on the part of the seller about the provenance of the piece can cause the price to be unintentionally over-inflated or underestimated in relation to what the basket’s true value should be. However, over time, as more people gain an interest in American antique baskets, more knowledge will create a more refined marketplace. With sophistication comes a more defined price range. So today’s high price may take many years to catch up with the basket’s actual value.
Look for What the Basket Is Not to Tell You What It Is
If you have been looking for a Shaker basket and think that you may have found it, analyze the item closely for telltale signs that it is not Shaker. Are the handles uniformly shaped and their wood joinery done with precision? Are the inside and outside rims matched in weight, width, and contour? Is the basket woven of a flat splint (not round?) Is the primary wood of the basket brown ash or the secondary wood white oak? Is there a specific size ratio between the weavers and the uprights (usually 3-to-1)? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then the basket will be anything but Shaker.
So if it is not Shaker, does that mean it has little value? Absolutely not! Just as there were many 19th-century furniture makers, silversmiths, and clockmakers, there were also many makers of baskets. I call these baskets “signature baskets.”
A signature basket is one that can be clearly identified with its maker or region. It has the maker’s familiar “touch marks” that makes it distinctive. A basket style made in west Taghkanic, New York, commonly referred to as “Bushwhacker” is an example of a signature basket. These baskets all have a distinctive rim profile, swing handle style, and a pushed up bottom. They also have a distinctive start and stop loop in the weave. There is a sameness of regional materials, sizes, and shapes to these baskets. While researching the Shaker baskets, I found that the Bushwhacker baskets were made by three families of basket makers living in Columbia County, New York, just 25 miles from the Mt. Lebanon Shaker village. Because their provenance is well defined, they will most certainly share in the future demand for Americana.
Beware of the Many Meanings of the Phrase “Shaker Basket”
This can be a confusing issue. When is a Shaker basket not a Shaker basket? That depends upon where you go and who you talk to. I have studied Shaker baskets for more than 30 years at Shaker villages, in private collections, and at Shaker museums It was apparent early on that there was a distinct difference in quality, although sometimes subtle, in the baskets called “Shaker.” My suspicions were verified in a conversation with Eldress Gertrude Soule at the Canterbury Shaker Village in 1976. Eldress Gertrude explained to me that often the local Indians would come by the village selling items, and among them were baskets. She said to me, “Of course if we saw a basket that was just right, we would purchase it. Why not? We did not have a style like that.” So not only were there Shaker-made baskets in the villages, there were also Shaker-bought, those purchased by the Shakers from the “outside” world.This is especially true with the Shaker working baskets. These were the baskets used for much of the outside work in the fields and barns in the village.
Working Baskets and Fancy Baskets
Two different styles, same set of rules. the working baskets were for just that: work. They were used for carrying heavy loads and spent much of their lives being picked up and used by the Shakers in their daily communal lives. Unlike other working baskets of that time, there were task-specific. That means they were made for a particular use. They were used in the dairy for cheese making, carried to the washroom with clothes, to the garden for picking and sorting, and to the attic for drying. Each task demanded a different design, but each design had all the identifiable marks and proportions of Shaker. Other working baskets made at area farms or by local Indians were less task-oriented. They were multipurpose, usually made from heavier material, and were bulkier. The handles and rims were coarse and less refined than those made by the standards of the Shakers.
Fancy baskets were made by the Shakers to sell in their gift shops and at grand resort hotels. These items generated income for the Shakers. (The cost of a fancy Shaker basket would be as much as an average weekly wage at that time.) The revenue was used to support the villages in the same way that medicines, seeds, brooms, and chairs were sold. The same aesthetic standards can be seen in the fancy baskets that are in their counterparts, the working baskets. Design, proportion, overall fit and finish to the rim and handle joinery are all hallmarks of the Shaker basket. The craftsmanship of the Shaker basket is superior to any other of its time period. The fancy baskets were always small (under eight inches) as they were sold as curios and brought home as gifts. Exceptions to this were the sewing basket and the quatrefoil tub styles that were larger.
Let the Basket Do the Talking
I once read an article about furniture making where the author stated that you will know if someone likes a piece of furniture within 15 seconds of looking at it. It either speaks to you or not. Baskets are the same, once you have learned their language. A Shaker basket has an unmistakable language. It speaks like no other American wood splint basket. The sheen of the pounded brown ash splint that has been hand-split to reveal its natural satin finish, the delicate yet strong material that us used in perfect ratio, the carefully carved hardwoods that form rims and handles, the hand-scarfed joints that lap the rims together, and the uniformity of design all speak of Shaker life like no other basket.
Perhaps because all baskets are made by hand and unlike other forms of Americana cannot be duplicated by machine, or perhaps because they are so familiar, baskets are getting noticed. as collectors we are showing others that only an American-made basket can carry our heritage, our history, and our pride. That alone makes them priceless.
Shaker working baskets were based on traditional forms and techniques, but their makers showed exceptional care in their creation. Craftsmanship is evident in these two apple baskets (New York origin). The basket in the foreground is made by the author.
Martha Wetherbee is single-handedly responsible for the revival of the lost art of making brown ash Shaker baskets. When not touring the country lecturing and teaching seminars, Martha splits her time between her homes in New England and Florida. She designs and makes traditional Shaker baskets as well as the Martha Wetherbee “American Traditions” and “Nantucket Familiars” basket styles. Martha is also involved in the evaluation and restoration of antique American baskets. Her co-authored books Shaker Baskets and Legend of the Bushwhacker are available by contacting her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The $63,000 Question
When is a basket worth $63,000? Last June, an Ohio basket collector shattered records when he paid that much for a rare twilled basket with two maple handles at the Willis Henry Shaker Auction in Old Chatham, NY. The six-inch by two-inch mini marvel was in excellent condition and had a clear provenance from a noted collection. It also had its original chrome-yellow finish.
The box had been a gift from Sister Eleanor Philbrook of the Sabbathday Lake Community in Maine to Alice Schwerdtfeger. Their daughter, Viola Schwerdtfeger Macomber, remembers how the basket came into her family.
“My parents, Gus and Alice Schwerdtfeger, and I moved to New Gloucester in 1945. Our huge farm house was on Route 26, right next to the Shaker Village at Sabbathday Lake. After a house fire that destroyed everything in 1947, Eldress Prudence Stickney insisted we live at the village until my dad could build a new home. The three of us lived in the then post office building with Sisters Eleanor Philbrook, Marie Burgess, and Lillian Beckwith. As dad worked on our new home, mom worked with the Sisters, and I attended Shaker school. Friendship deepened, and after we moved into our renovated one-room school house on the old foundation, still next door, we were still considered family. My mom continued to help the Sisters, and dad started working with and for Brother Delmar Wilson making oval boxes. Gifts were frequently exchanged on birthdays, and Sister Eleanor gave my mom the basket on one of those occasions in the 1950s.”
The basket remained with Alice, who died in 1999, and then was passed down to Viola. “When I realized what a treasure the basket truly was, I knew I had to part with it so that it could be appreciated,” she said. “Keeping it in a cardboard box in a closet wasn’t right.”
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