In the early 1900s, William and Mary Benson, a Pomo Indian couple, won renown for their exquisite Native American baskets. In 1912, they gave one of William's most masterly pieces to a trusted friend. It is now among 200 artifacts in "The Language of Native American Baskets" exhibit at the Smithsonian's HeyeCenter at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City (through January 2005).
The Bensons, who spent most of their lives on Pomo tribal territories near what is now Ukiah, California, met Grace Nicholson, a Pasadena dealer in Native American basketry, in 1903; she soon signed the couple to an exclusive contract. The market was heating up as a first wave of collectors began vying to purchase outstanding examples of Native American craft.
Mary Benson was diagnosed with corneal disease in December 1911. Without treatment, she would have grown completely blind. Nicholson paid for the surgery that restored her sight. Generosity was Nicholson's hallmark, says Jeanne Perkins, a Pasadena-based writer who is working on a biography of the dealer. "She never said, 'I'll give you this much money,'" Perkins says. "She always said to the weaver, 'How much do you want for that piece?' And whatever they wanted, she paid."
In 1912, as Mary recovered, she wrote to her friend and benefactor: "[May the] Bank of Happiness Deliver to Miss Grace Nicholson Three Hundred and Sixty Five Days of Health, Wealth and Prosperity." William wrote to Nicholson as well, promising her that "you alwis [sic] are to have the first chance of our baskets. There is no danger of any baskets going out of our hands without you knowing."
The following year, William sent Nicholson a token of his appreciation: a bent-willow vessel, only about three inches high and incorporating thousands of intricate stitches. The basket is perfect in its artistry. Diagonal twining traverses three warps (vertical components). Black cotton thread and shreds of dark blue and red silk, painstakingly plucked from a handkerchief, are seamlessly woven into a matrix of cured sedge root in two hues—a natural shade of taupe and a vegetable-dyed brown. "I builted [sic] the basket in the spring of 1882," Benson wrote his friend Nicholson. "I was a little over five weeks making the basket. This basket was the first I made."
After Nicholson's death in 1948, her private collection, which included Benson's gift, was donated to the Gustave Heye Foundation—later to be incorporated into the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian. Today, Bruce Bernstein, who is the organizing curator of the HeyeCenter exhibition, believes that the basket is too sophisticated to represent Benson's first effort. "The stitches are so even in size, and it is so evenly shaped," he says. "The materials—willow for the warp, sedge and bulrush root, silk thread, all of different diameters, with variations in flexibility and tension"—suggest the work of a master.
But Nicholson herself, one of the foremost experts on Pomo basketry, took Benson at his word. "This basket [was] made by William when he was a boy to hold his charms," she wrote. "He presented this to me after a successful operation on his wife's eyes."
Perhaps the greatest collection of Pomo baskets is at the GraceHudsonMuseum in Ukiah, California. Today, about 20 subgroups within the federally recognized sovereign Pomo peoples remain in the general vicinity of their ancestral lands. The museum's director, Sherrie Smith-Ferri, a leading Pomo scholar, is staying neutral on the question of when Benson may have made the basket.
"I don't know if there's any definitive way to make this judgment," Smith-Ferri says. "Bill Benson was a totally phenomenal talent—he was so good that perhaps the ordinary rules don’t apply to him."