Basket Weaving 101
The first Native American basket that Natalie Linn MALS ’90 ever bought was a fake. She paid five dollars for it after being told it had been woven by an American Indian. Linn had graduated from UC–Berkeley, gotten married, and was setting up her new home back in Portland.
“I didn’t know how to decorate the house, and I always liked baskets,” she remembers. Her disappointment over that first fraud has fuelled a lifelong obsession that now goes way beyond interior design. “I was told it was American Indian. It wasn’t. I swore I’d never let that happen again.”
Today, Linn’s personal collection of American Indian baskets includes more than 200 pieces, and they are displayed all over her spacious Southwest Portland home. Her most precious piece appraises at around a quarter of a million dollars. “I’m kind of a tourist attraction for anyone who loves the art,” she confesses. Since starting her collection more than 30 years ago, Linn has become a recognized curator and appraiser of American Indian basketry, buying and selling on behalf of numerous clients.
But her most notable credit, she admits, is on-screen—working with the PBS series Antiques Roadshow. Linn served as an appraiser during the show’s third and ninth seasons, and in August, she taped for the upcoming 12th season in Spokane, Washington.
Linn keeps busy writing, lecturing, and consulting. She’s the author of The Plateau Bag: A Tradition in Native American Weaving, and narrated the video, The Artistry of Native American Baskets: Baskets of the Northwest People. She has also consulted for the Seattle, New Orleans, Cleveland, St. Louis, Portland, and Palm Springs art museums, as well as for Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Universal Studios.
At Reed, Linn wrote a master’s thesis in art history, The Artistry of American Indian Basketry, and took classes with anthropology professor David French, a formidable scholar who studied the peoples of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon. French later invited Linn to lecture his classes in her area of expertise. The baskets that Linn now collects date from 1860 to 1940, and originate from all over the West, where Native American lifestyles were most conducive to artful basket weaving. Western groups were less nomadic than Eastern tribes, and had more time to create baskets for numerous uses and occasions. Still, basket makers were never referred to within their groups as artists. “Everything they made was embellished, but there was no word for art” in any Western North American Indian language, she says.
Finding English words for this art form is also a challenge. “Collectors come to me and say, ‘Why do I like this?’ They can see that there’s something beautiful there, but they can’t quite describe it. That’s one reason I went to Reed: to try to come up with terms to describe this unbelievable art form.”
Since first being swindled out of five dollars, Linn has only been duped once more. She bought a basket from a man in Florida based on a picture he sent her. The basket was genuine—but only three-quarters of it was there. “It was missing the complete backside!” she says. “And it was not cheap.”
Appraisers on Antiques Roadshow work a grueling 12-hour day appraising the valuable (and not-so-valuable) bric-a-brac that people turn up in their attics, basements, and living rooms. Very little, if any, of that time is spent in the spotlight. Still, she says, “It’s an honor to be asked.” People who come in for appraisals can find Linn’s card after the show and seek her out as a broker if they so choose, but self-promotion is prohibited.
Linn remembers one great find from season nine—a miniature World War I plane made entirely of basketry. When she estimated its value, the owner was pleased and said she planned to donate it to a museum. “I had to act totally excited about that, but of course I was absolutely dying.”
—Johanna Droubay ’04