"Watch out for fakes," is my biggest caution to everyone. I recently did a search for "Indian Basket" and screened out all of the baskets with "Indian Style" or "Indian Design." I also left out the ones where the seller stated up front that they were made by Latin American tribes or were made in India. I finally came up with a total of 257 baskets which the sellers asserted were Native American.
Then I counted the fakes. I wasn't sure of a few, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt, but I still found 88 baskets that I knew were not Native American. Despite eBay's strict requirements for listing Native American baskets, the fakes still totalled more than one out of three!
I broke the fakes down further: 36 I knew were from Africa or the Middle East, 14 were from Latin America but not listed as such, 14 more were from Asia, and 3 were from Europe. I couldn't say for sure where the rest were made, but I knew that no Native American had made them.
Doing this little snapshot was a pain, but it was the best way I could think of to illustrate what I'm talking about. And this isn't an isolated incident. What's really scary is that the highest price I saw on a fake that day was well over $100. But then in my early days of collecting, I got burned too. I paid over $200 for what was advertised as an "Eskimo basket." I was very happy with it until I came to the realization that it was actually African and only worth about $30. Ouch! An expensive lesson, but I learned from it and I no longer buy anything that I'm not 100% sure of.
So how does one tell a genuine Indian basket?
First of all, be very wary of coiled baskets with bright colors. A lot of the fakes fall into this category. Also be wary of the Chinese "rice straw" baskets, which look like fine straw, often having tiny braided handles and often also with bright colors.
The Eastern Woodlands Indian ash baskets are quite easy to tell once you familiarize yourself with how they were made. Look for satiny smooth, lightweight wood splints, often with decorative curls and twists, and frequently dyed bright colors. Some of them have cording woven in, and many of them have extra sweetgrass weaves and braids. And be sure to check out the rims. Most of the rims are bound with ash over sweetgrass or sometimes ash over plain ash splints. If you see a rim binding pattern like this over grass: / / / /, it's usually Native American. Sometimes the rim looks like this: / \ / \ / \. Beware of rim bindings that look like this: [[ [[ [[ because those are Asian.
Some of the older ash splint Indian baskets were decorated with designs in paint, sometimes potato-stamped on in a pattern. The background color of the splints was swabbed on, not soaked, which is the hallmark of an early basket (over 100 years old.) When this kind of basket was made, dye was too valuable to waste by soaking the splints, so the dye was swabbed on the front of the splint and does not show on the inside of the basket. Another clue to an early basket is that the splints are not of precisely even widths, as would be the case if a splint-making tool was used. This type of basket is easy to identify once you've seen a few of them.
The Great Lakes tribes made sweetgrass baskets bound with thread, usually black thread. Those baskets frequently have birch bark bases. Sweetgrass is never dyed. I can't think of a single instance where I've seen colored sweetgrass. The Great Lakes tribes also made quill boxes. Quill boxes are also very easy to identify - nothing else looks quite like them.
Other baskets that are easy to identify once you've seen a few are Tlingit baskets, Salish baskets, and Makah/Nootka baskets. In fact, the whole Pacific Northwest area has unique styles that can't be duplicated by imports. (I've seen many Chinese rice straw baskets listed as Makah, but they really don't look the same.)
The hardest baskets to identify (at least in my experience) have been the Southwest Indian baskets. Most of them have dark brown patterns on tan backgrounds. Unfortunately, many of the fakes also have dark brown patterns on tan backgrounds. If you're interested in collecting Native American baskets, this is not the area I'd start with. The real ones can be extremely expensive, and the fakes are numerous.
Sometimes, but not always, it's helpful to look at the bids and see which baskets are bringing a lot of attention. Also, don't assume that the baskets in the Live Auctions are always genuine; I've seen some which are not. One other thing you can do is look at the closed auctions and see what has sold and how much it brought. Just familiarize yourself with what's out there and the prices. It also helps to buy from a seller who knows baskets and has a good reputation; be wary of anyone who puts the following disclaimer in their auction, "I am not a basket expert, but..."
I love seeing baskets and discussing baskets. If any of you readers are interested in bidding on a basket and are not sure if it's the real article or a fake, please feel free to write me with your questions (my screen name is Pogonia.) I would be happy to share my opinion of any basket with you.
Thanks, and happy bidding!