Aleut museum lucks into historic woven basket

Posted: Sunday, May 14, 2000

An Alaska AP Member Exchange

UNALASKA (AP) -- 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 specimens in thimble-sized proportions -- the donated item 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 be interested in donating the item.

''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.''

To the surprise of everyone involved, it worked. Barbara Carruthers, a 76-year-old Connecticut retiree, promptly shipped the basket to Unalaska.

''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, with wide cracks and broken seams around the bottom and on the lid. In fact, its rumpled appearance kept a number of East Coast museums from accepting it. Carruthers said she asked several if it could be displayed, and none were interested.

''Nobody wanted it,'' she said. ''It wasn't perfect.''

Nevertheless Knecht said the item could provide a stunning amount of information about the dying Aleut basketweaving culture.

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 basketmakers.

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.

Even before its voyage to Unalaska, the basket had a colorful history.

Carruthers said she was given the basket by a Danish friend who decided to return to Europe after her husband's death. That woman had purchased it from a California man who couldn't store his basket collection after his house was crushed by a mudslide.

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 currently 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 that 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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