Museum finds historic basket via Internet

Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2000

UNALASKA - Forget about the belief that only junk is available at Internet auction houses.

Amid the used computer equipment and beanie babies, Rick Knecht found an eye-popping discovery last month while surfing the Web. Following a tip from a friend, the Museum of the Aleutians director stumbled across one of the most remarkable Aleut baskets in existence.

When it arrived in Unalaska last week, Knecht was stunned. In the world of Aleut basketry - which often involves thimble-sized specimens - this is a monster.

At 15 inches high and 12 inches in diameter, the basket is big enough to hold a basketball. Knecht said it probably was created in the mid-1800s by an Attu weaver as a commodity to offer to international traders.

``It's by far the biggest living basket I've ever seen,'' Knecht said.

The basket almost slipped away from the museum. Knecht didn't think the museum could afford the Web site's minimum offer of $1,000. Instead of bidding, he asked its owner if she would donate the item, which she had been given years before.

``I wrote her a letter and said, `Listen, we're a small museum. We don't have any money,''' Knecht said. ``It was our standard plea for mercy.''

It worked. Barbara Carruthers, a 76-year-old Connecticut retiree, promptly shipped the basket.

``I have no idea why I gave it away,'' she said in a phone interview. ``Something just told me it should go back to where it came from.''

Carruthers said she had the basket appraised by Sotheby's about 15 years ago, and its value was estimated at $2,300 to $3,000. Since then, the price of historic Aleut crafts has skyrocketed. Knecht said the basket has likely become a treasure.

The basket is a bit tattered, and its rumpled appearance kept a number of East Coast museums from accepting it. Carruthers said she asked several and none were interested.

Knecht said the item could provide a stunning amount of information about the dying Aleut basket-weaving tradition.

The knob on top of the lid is so distinctive it has never been seen in any modern baskets. The weave pattern is no longer used, and is not known to any modern-day basket-makers.

Knecht believes study of the basket could revive elements of the craft that have been lost in the past century. Because of its significance, he said it will be on permanent display at the museum.

Giving the basket up for free is causing a little hardship for Carruthers, who said she was auctioning it to raise some badly needed cash.

She is selling her house because she can no longer afford it, along with many of her possessions, including a set of pewter heirlooms that have been in her family since the Mayflower arrived in America. Several less-valuable baskets are also on the auction block.

Still, Carruthers said she is happy her donation found a home where it will be appreciated. That, she said, gives her more satisfaction than the money ever could.

``I've been poor for the last 30 years,'' she said with a laugh. ``I'm used to it by now.''

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