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Dat So La Lee baskets released to state

by Sheila Gardner

The latest chapter in a 20-year mystery was closed Thursday with the return of three baskets created by legendary Washoe weaver Dat So La Lee to the Nevada State Historical Society. The artworks – now valued at close to $1 million – were stolen from the museum in 1978.

“We’re very happy they’re home now, and we’ll take good care of them,” said Dr. Peter Bandurraga, director of the Nevada Historical Society.

Four baskets and other Indian artifacts were stolen from the Nevada Historical Society in Reno on Nov. 13, 1978. Attempts to recover the missing items began in 1980 when a Santa Cruz, Calif., attorney contacted the museum, saying he represented a third party who might be able to return one or two of the baskets to the historical society for a finder’s fee.

“There was some discussion back and forth, and a curator brought back a basket in January 1981 for $2,500. By February or March, 1981, when the attorney was contacted again, the three missing baskets went underground,” said Bandurraga, a Minden resident.

In 1998, Prof. Marvin Cahodas of the University of British Columbia received a request from a California dealer for an appraisal of three Washoe baskets. Cahodas is considered a leading authority on Washoe baskets, Bandurraga said.

“Professor Cahodas immediately recognized them as the historical society baskets. We had been watching the market forever; they rarely come on. He called us immediately, and we contacted the Nevada Attorney General’s office, which contacted the FBI,” Bandurraga said.

Twenty years ago when the baskets disappeared, the FBI didn’t get involved because the agency had no proof that the artifacts had crossed state lines, Bandurraga explained. Now, there’s a new statute which makes it a federal offense to steal cultural and museum objects. And since the baskets surfaced in California, the artifacts had obviously had crossed state lines.

n Traced to Tuscson. The stolen baskets were traced to Tucson, Ariz., to collector Paul Shepherd, an art dealer, who surrendered them in exchange for a $50,000 settlement.

Museum officials in Arizona and Nevada were concerned how long the FBI would keep the baskets as evidence while the case was investigated.

“They are reasonably fragile,” Bandurraga said. “The FBI was planning to put them in a gun vault because it was a secure place. I became concerned with that because with guns, rust is a big problem, they need low humidity. That’s exactly wrong for storing baskets, which need dry storage.”

Bandurraga spoke with Arizona Historical Society officials, who volunteered to pack the baskets properly. Eventually, however, the FBI said the items could be returned to Nevada for storage as long as they were under lock and key.

So, in February 1998, Bandurraga and historical society registrar Andrea Mugnier found themselves on their way to Phoenix with the FBI to bring the baskets home.

n Child’s fare. Bandurraga paid child’s fare for three seats for the baskets packed in special boxes, strapped them in and brought them home.

“It was fabulous to see them at last,” Bandurraga said.

On Jan. 27, 1999, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Arizona decided there weren’t enough facts to warrant prosecution and the baskets could be released.

That happened Thursday at the historical society in Reno.

“They are not in pristine museum condition, but they are in fine shape,” Bandurraga said.

He said the museum is in the middle of a “giant remodeling project,” and the baskets will be prominently displayed this summer in a secured glass case with the other seven in the collection. A second set of 10 baskets is on display at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.

He speculated that the missing baskets had been in a private collection.

“I believe they probably were in private hands. Just looking at them, they could have been on display in somebody’s living room. Some fading patterns on them indicate they were in a glass case or on a shelf where they got regular sunshine with some shadows. Wear around the rim looks like they were grabbed and dusted in the same place regularly,” Bandurraga said.

Dat So La Lee was a renowned Indian basketmaker who lived from about 1850 to 1925. She made approximately 120 baskets from willow branches, roots and bark.

“She was truly remarkable as an artist. She took what had been a domestic craft and pushed the technique. She was not alone,” Bandurraga said. “Her relatives and other Washoe women went to remarkable levels and are continuing to do that. In my estimation, she was certainly the best, but there are others of superb skill, and they created something of a market. What had simply been a domestic skill generated income in a very changed social environment. None of them benefited much.”

n Personal milestone. The return of the baskets represents a personal milestone for Bandurraga. Investigation of the theft was unfolding when he first started work at the museum nearly 20 years ago.

“I arrived as this was all going down. We collected a certain amount of insurance money, and my task was to replace the stolen baskets. There was a time limit on the insurance money and I acquired a very nice collection of southern Paiute baskets,” he recalled.

At the time of their theft, the baskets were valued at a total of $40,000. Today, they are worth between $250,000 and $300,000 each, Bandurraga said.

“Native American material of high quality is always high priced and has been for 30 years,” Bandurraga said. “We’re not in the business of buying and selling our collection, but there would be no purchase funds for an acquisition like that.”

Bandurraga said art theft is a thriving business, but the FBI has created a national registry of lost and stolen artwork, and museums and historical societies are encouraged to list their missing pieces.

“That kind of artwork is difficult to sell legally,” Bandurraga said. “How are you going to sell the Mona Lisa to somebody if you stole it?”

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