Work by artists famous and unknown

By Terry Maurer, What's it Worth June 17, 2012 

Just about everyone has a set of dishes and most of us have something framed, hanging on a wall.

In today's What's It Worth we answer questions from readers who want to know about such items. One is from the studios of a famous American designer; the other by the hand of a possibly Canadian artist hardly anyone has heard of.

Q. This small watercolor painting has been in our family for several generations. I believe my grandmother was the first owner. It measures about 11 inches high. Can you tell me anything about the artist and the possible value? -- Jason in Richland.

A. Yours is an attractive little work of art and one that will be of some, but not great, interest in the marketplace.

A.H. Rowe was -- depending on which sources you reference -- an English, or maybe Canadian, or perhaps an American artist, active in the early and mid-20th century. In one auction sale, he will be described as a Canadian working on the West Coast painting scenes near Vancouver. Another sales catalog lists him as an American, painting seascapes near Boston.

Confusing, certainly; but that kind of multiple identification is fairly common in the art world when dealing with artists about whom not much is known. While we are certain he was working in the 1920's, 30's and 40's, no source has any biographical information on Rowe. Not even his birth and death dates are known.

This is one of those circumstances where value will be established by auction records -- assuming there are any. As it happens, many works signed by A. H. Rowe have been up for sale in the past 10 to 15 years. The majority have been at auction houses in Canada. Prices have ranged from as little as $50 to a high of $400. Many of his works -- all of which are seascapes or harbor scenes -- failed to sell at any price.

So, the market tells us this is a nice little watercolor by a "known" artist, about whom not really very much is known. It is in a good period frame, signed and dated, and that all helps the value some.

If this were to sell at auction today, the best market would seem to be western Canada. We think a fair estimate would be $100 to $200.

Q. Our dinnerware service has a stamped mark on the back for sascha Brastoff of California. It was my mother's and is a sort of swirling, multi-color design. What can you tell us? -- Don & Mary in Kennewick.

A. Sascha Brastoff was a multi-talented designer, dancer and artist who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.

After service in World War II, where his impression of Carmen Miranda stopped the show in the Army Air Force touring stage production Winged Victory, he moved to California. There, he repeated his Miranda send-up in the 1944 film version starring Karl Malden and Edmond O'Brien.

He landed a contract with Fox Studios, where he worked as a costume designer. In the late 1940's - with the sponsorship of Winthrop Rockefeller - Brastoff opened a design studio producing innovative ceramics that were among the most expensive and luxurious on the market at that time.

This dinnerware pattern is "Surf Ballet," introduced in in the late '40s or early '50s and made for about a decade.

As such, it fits into the timeframe of what collectors now call Mid-century Modern design. The color scheme here is a pink background with gold highlights. The swirled Surf Ballet pieces also were available with a turquoise/platinum color combination.

"Surf Ballet" hit the market when Brastoff was at the peak of his creative output. These pieces bear his full name -- which means they were personally crafted by him. Later work, signed just "Sascha B." mean the production was merely done under his supervision. Those are much less valuable than pieces with full signatures and the rooster mark.

At the peak of ceramic production, Brastoff's Los Angeles studio employed 150 craft workers and assistant designers.

In addition to ceramics, Brastoff also worked in resin. His colorful molded pieces in that material -- mostly small vases -- are valued by collectors. He was a jewelry designer as well and those pieces are hard to find.

Recently, a Surf Ballet dinner-ware service for eight sold at auction in California for $1,000. We have seen individual dinner plates valued at $25. This is a highly collected pattern by a major American designer.

w Terry Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email to

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