Skip to content
José Formoso Reyes is credited with inventing the Nantucket friendship basket form, which is still widely appreciated today. This example achieved $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers.

José Formoso Reyes reimagined the Nantucket basket

NEW YORK — Since the 1800s, baskets have been handwoven on the island of Nantucket, which lies about 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It’s a long way from the Philippines, but in 1945, Philippines-born José Formoso Reyes (1902-1980) and his Massachusetts-born wife, Mary Ham, came to visit her family on Nantucket after Reyes completed his service with the US Army. They loved the island so much that they never left, and ultimately became part of its history.

When Reyes had trouble finding work as a teacher, he took jobs painting houses and repairing woven cane seats, relying on the weaving skills he had learned in his homeland. The tradition of open woven baskets named for Nantucket’s lightships was already well established when Reyes embraced it, but he would make it his own.

This basket by José Formoso Reyes, made circa 1959, features two whale finials on its lid. It earned $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Rafael Osona Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
This basket by José Formoso Reyes, made circa 1959, features two whale finials on its lid. It earned $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Rafael Osona Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Renowned second-generation basket-maker Mitchell Ray helped Reyes get started, sharing some of his basket molds. By the summer of 1948, Reyes had launched a business selling his ‘friendship basket’ purses. They soon found favor, priced at a few hundred dollars apiece.

His competitors were few when he began his career — just nine other artisans were active on the island then — but Reyes’ success would be shared by all. Demand for his baskets had the happy effect of boosting interest in traditional Nantucket open-form lightship baskets.

“Another local craftsman, Charlie Sayle and his wife, suggested adding the ornamentation of his basket tops with an ivory whale or seagull. José became well known for his innovative style and unique designs in basket weaving,” according to the Nantucket Historical Association’s online biography of Reyes.

“Reyes is the man credited with creating the friendship basket form, and one of the most talented of a group of very adept basket makers,” said Andrew Davis, auctioneer and owner of Casco Bay Auctions in Freeport, Maine.

Side and top views of a José Formoso Reyes Nantucket friendship basket that achieved $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers.
Side and top views of a José Formoso Reyes Nantucket friendship basket that achieved $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $500-$800 in June 2020. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers.

Reyes’ baskets were prized during his lifetime and remain highly collectible. At auction, they typically sell above estimate in the $5,000 to $8,000 range. One that he made in 1967 took $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates. This oblong example had a hinged cover with a seagull decoration.

“The market has remained relatively consistent for the past decade or so, with prices consistently high for his baskets. The earlier baskets are more desirable,” Davis said, noting that buyers like baskets graced with whales or seagulls, motifs that Reyes used equally often.

A signed 1960 José Reyes Nantucket purse secured $6,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of William Smith Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A signed 1960 José Reyes Nantucket purse secured $6,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of William Smith Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A signed Nantucket purse crowned with a spread-winged seagull, which Reyes made in 1960, brought $6,500 plus the buyer’s premium at William Smith Auctions in September 2021. Also oblong in shape, this basket looks similar to the one sold at Jeffrey Evans & Associates.

While each basket was handmade, and Reyes sometimes worked freehand, he wove them on forms that gave them a similar appearance and construction, and his swing handles are nearly identical. Different-size blocks in his studio allowed him to make baskets that nested in one another.

Reyes made more than 5,000 baskets in his lifetime. Most demanded two full days of work, or 16 hours apiece.

This José Formoso Reyes Nantucket Friendship basket, which has an ivory seagull mounted against an ebony base, sold for $5,750 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2021. Image courtesy of Casco Bay Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
This José Formoso Reyes Nantucket Friendship basket, which has an ivory seagull mounted against an ebony base, sold for $5,750 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2021. Image courtesy of Casco Bay Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The artist’s early examples are coveted, as they date to the time when he was experimenting with techniques and looks. One such basket, sporting an ivory seagull finial mounted against an ebony base on the lid instead of a white ivory base, realized $5,750 plus the buyer’s premium at Casco Bay Auctions in March 2021.

“This basket, dated 1956, is an early example of the friendship basket, and the whalebone seagull mounted on an ebony base is unusual amongst his baskets. This particular example was also in nearly perfect condition,” Davis said.

A commissioned José Formoso Reyes Nantucket basket, decorated with whales on its sides, sold for $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2023. Image courtesy of New England Auctions - Fred Giampietro and LiveAuctioneers.
A commissioned José Formoso Reyes Nantucket basket, decorated with whales on its sides, sold for $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2023. Image courtesy of New England Auctions - Fred Giampietro and LiveAuctioneers.

Another Reyes standout is a special commission that had three applied ebony whales on its sides, each carved to fit the contours of the basket and attached to it with small screws. It realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2023 at New England Auctions – Fred Giampietro.

Still another Reyes basket with unusual features, matching a carved ivory finial with an ebony base, took $3,300 plus the buyer’s premium at Casco Bay Auction. “This basket was in very good condition and had a whalebone dedication plaque on the inside [to Andrea P. Irvine], which is only seen on a handful of his baskets,” Davis said.

This José Formoso Reyes basket, having a carved ivory finial on an ebony base, sold for $3,300 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2023. Image courtesy of Casco Bay Auction and LiveAuctioneers.
This José Formoso Reyes basket, having a carved ivory finial on an ebony base, sold for $3,300 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2023. Image courtesy of Casco Bay Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Usually, Reyes baskets feature a single finial on the lid, but a circa-1959 creation boasted two in the forms of an adult whale accompanied by a baby whale. Both were carved in ivory by fellow Nantucket artisan Charlie Sayle, who was known for his scrimshaw. This basket earned $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022 at Rafael Osona Auctions.

According to an interview with Reyes on YouTube, in which he discussed his process and the unique characteristics of Nantucket lightship and friendship baskets, he recruited local artists to carve finials and decorations, including Sayle.

In that video interview, Reyes explained what makes Nantucket baskets special. Most baskets have woven bottoms, made with the same rattan used on the sidewalls, but Nantucket baskets feature a wooden base.

“I’m so glad in a way that I helped revive a craft in Nantucket that is very valuable,” he said. “It’s really a Nantucket basket, because there is no basket in the world that has a bottom like this.”