Today’s post was authored by a Guest Contributor, historian and sea grass basket scholar Dale Rosengarten.
It amazes me when historic objects resurface after decades, even centuries, of lying hidden and unknown. Occasionally, the objects are returned “home”—repatriated, as it were—and amazement turns to triumph and joy. Such were my feelings last September when I gazed at a large bulrush wood basket, in near mint condition, on display at the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. The museum was hosting a traveling exhibition called “Grass Roots On-the-Road”—a small, low security version of a major exhibit I co-curated for the Museum for African Art in New York. Coastal Discovery’s Vice President of Programs, Natalie Hefter, had put out a call for local residents to lend Lowcountry baskets from their collections to the museum. Beaufort resident Erik Stevens turned up with a Penn School basket, circa 1905, probably made by Penn’s first basketry instructor, Alfred Graham, and sporting its original Trademark Tag with Graham’s picture on it.
Where has the basket been all these years? How was it rescued from obscurity? Looking for photographs of an old house he was restoring in Beaufort, Erik Googled “Trask,” the name of the family that owned the property next door, and came up with an estate sale of the late Spencer Trask of Saratoga Springs, New York. Among the items listed for auction was a “St. Helena basket.” Erik bid $195—the minimum figure—and bought the orphaned object uncontested.