Lightship Basket Stolen 53 Years Ago In Florida Resurfaces On Nantucket, Returned To Owner

Jason Graziadei •

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Jay Riggs still remembers the day in March 1969 when her Nantucket lightship basket was stolen at the Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida. The basket had been a gift from her late husband - created by the renowned Nantucket lightship basket artist Paul Whitten - but when she set it down in the airport and got distracted for a brief moment, it was gone.

But last Friday, more than 53 years later, Riggs was miraculously reunited with the stolen lightship basket right here on Nantucket.

“I cannot believe it,” Riggs said on Sunday. “Isn’t it amazing? It’s been gone 53 years.”

Riggs’ friend and island resident Anna Jay was shopping for baskets at Sylvia Antiques on Straight Wharf last Thursday during its big warehouse sale when one caught her eye. When she picked it up to examine it, she immediately noticed the inscription on the bottom: “made for Jay Riggs.”

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She texted a photo of the basket to Riggs who immediately asked where she had found it, and told the story of the stolen lightship basket.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Anna Jay said.

They made arrangements to meet up last Friday at the store, where owner John Sylvia had set it aside, and gave it to Riggs at no charge.

“It’s really unbelievable,” Sylvia said. “I grew up down the street from Jay. It was wild. When she came in, she got teary-eyed. It was amazing.”

Sylvia couldn’t remember exactly how he had acquired the lightship basket - it may have been an online auction or on eBay - but it had been collecting dust in a box with other baskets at his storage unit for more than two decades. But the warehouse sale last week prompted him to clear out some of the items that had been stored away, and by chance, Anna Jay just happened to come upon it at the storefront on Straight Wharf.

“Lots of goosebumps and some tears,” Anna Jay said of the moment Sylvia gave the basket back to Riggs. “It was a surreal moment and a real example of what a community this island is.”

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Riggs, 83, who has been coming to Nantucket since she was a baby and moved to the island year-round in 1981, said the lightship basket had been a Christmas gift from her late husband Lawrie. He had commissioned the late Paul Whitten, a prolific lightship basket artist who passed away in 1997, to create the gift.

But just months after Riggs received it, the basket was stolen as she was travelling through Fort Lauderdale.

“I was hysterical,” Riggs recalled.

She never thought she would see it again, and years later, Riggs’ husband actually commissioned Whitten to make her another lightship basket just like it.

Even as the shock of the incident started to fade, the stolen basket resurfaced. In the early 2000s, island resident Sheila Daume’s sister-in-law saw the basket for sale on eBay, and she alerted Riggs who reached out to the sellers.

“They said they bought it at a yard sale in Florida, and that I could buy it for $1,000,” Riggs said. “I told them it was stolen, and they didn’t want to talk to me after that.”

Two decades later, the basket now sits safely on Riggs’ bookcase at her home on Nantucket.

According to the Nantucket Historical Association’s brief history of Nantucket lightshihp baskets, “ There are four distinctive elements that define a Nantucket lightship basket. The basket is woven on a mold; the staves are made of rattan; the weavers are of cane; and the basket has a solid wood base. Baskets with these characteristics developed on Nantucket during the course of the nineteenth century. When well made, they were robust and practical as storage and carrying baskets and were in wide use in the island’s stores, workshops, and homes. As the island transitioned from a whaling economy to a tourist economy in the 1860s and after, the island’s work baskets became popular keepsakes of an island visit.”

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