Treasures: Fun Conversation Piece was Mass Produced, but Loved by Some Collectors

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I have a painting with a lot of character that hangs in my office. The painting is 4-by-2 feet with a 3 {-inch gold colored wooden frame. It is a lighted black velvet painting signed with the name “Ashbrook” in the lower left corner. I would like to know about the artist and where the painting originated. Also, the year it was done and the story about its creation. Most people do not like it, but it has been a good conversation piece.

Happy to be from the Midwest,

D. G.

Dear D. G.:

Helaine is also happy to be from the Midwest, and we both think the piece is a proverbial hoot and a half. Yes, we understand why most people do not like it, but it is fun and from a time that is attracting more and more collector interest.

We have done quite a lot of research on the name “Ashbrook” with some success. There are those who see these lighted pictures with the name “Ashbrook” and attribute them to Paul Ashbrook, a Cincinnati artist who lived from 1867-1949.

Unfortunately, that is just a wagon load of wishful thinking. Ashbrook was long dead before the piece belonging to D. G. was manufactured. That’s right-manufactured. It was, in fact, mass produced by a company and not created by a specific artist.

We cannot be absolutely sure about the history because the firm’s records are sparse and ambiguous. But we believe the piece was created by Ashbrook Studios, which went into business on Aug. 15, 1974, in Garden Grove, Calif. Reports are they went out of business sometime in the 1980s, but we could not find an exact date or a history of the company’s enterprises.

What we did find suggests Ashbrook Studios silk screened home decor items-often on Masonite, but we suppose black velvet was within their range. Their work is commonly referenced by collectors as being “illuminated paintings” or “light-up” paintings with windows, lamps or lanterns that have small lights behind them.

These vintage light-up pieces tend to be brightly colored depictions of such things as boats, architecture (some with fountains or flamenco dancers), European scenes or views of San Francisco featuring the Golden Gate Bridge, trollies and/or pagodas. We found Ashbrook Studios images of owls with light-up eyes (in the dark, this must have been spooky) and another of Plains, Ga., which must have been manufactured around the time Jimmy Carter (Plains’s most famous citizen) was president of the United States (1977-1981).

Not surprisingly, we found there are collectors who love these pieces. Some of them remembered Ashbrook Studio images from their childhood homes and wanted to purchase similar examples. Such nostalgia is an important motivation in some forms of collecting, and this country barn scene with musicians and a dog might very well resonate with those who remember it or are just interested in late 20th century kitsch.

Most of these seem to be offered for sale in the $150 to $250 range, but we did find one Ashbrook Studios image priced at more than $10,000! Yeah, right.

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