Treasure: Looks like Picasso, but it’s Saar ceramics

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Barbara Altwerger was curious. The pottery her aunt bought in California in the 1950s and eventually passed along to her looked a lot like works by Picasso. Her aunt spent $300 at the time she bought it and “we thought she was crazy,” Altwerger of Farmington Hills remembers.

Her aunt, she told appraiser Brian Thomczek at Judy Frankel Antiques in Troy, was a fan of mid-century modern art and design, an era which is enjoying a renaissance of interest from collectors. “I have a picture of her draperies with bark cloth and prints,” she said. “Her place was very mid-century.”

The plates definitely fit that aesthetic, says Thomczek. Altwerger has an extensive set of 12 place settings, platters and accessories including ashtray, coffee creamer and gravy boat in the distinctive design with gray and black swirls and a stylized horse-like animal.

And while they look like works similar to Picasso’s, they are in fact the work of an artist/potter named Richard Warner Saar.

According to biographical information found on the website, Saar was a Coast Guard combat artist during World War II who recorded his experiences of the invasion of Luzon. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he later moved to Laurel Canyon, California, where he became known for his work in modernist ceramics and plein air (outdoor) painting. He and his wife Betye Saar, a collage artist, were the parents of Alison Saar, a well-known sculpture and installation artist. More information found at, said that the artist was active for a short time, from 1950-1962, and that the pattern “Etruscan” is among his most popular and recognizable ceramic works.

Saar pieces can be found frequently on eBay and etsy, where they are popular examples of mid-century modern style. At press time, one piece similar to Altwerger’s was listed for $42. They are examples of earthenware, not porcelain, said the appraiser. And while they have some stylistic similarities to the pottery produced by Picasso, the Saar pieces unfortunately don’t command the same prices, Thomczek said.

“The signed black stylized animal form decorative pieces are nicely done and would sell for around $400 as a set,” according to the appraiser, who said that demand could push the price higher.

He recommended she talk to a pottery expert – someone like David Rago in New Jersey, a popular “Antiques Roadshow” expert – if she was looking to sell or get additional information. “This is the kind of thing he’d be interested in,” Thomczek said. Altwerger said she was happy to know more and would possibly do some follow-up with other appraisers. “We are looking to sell.”

Picasso ceramics would, of course, command a higher price, the appraiser added. “If it was Picasso, you’d definitely be looking in the thousands, not hundreds.”

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About this item:

Item: Mid-century ceramics

Owner: Barbara Altwerger

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value: Approximately $400 at auction