West German Pottery: Collectors find something for every budget in art born during the Cold War

west german pottery
This is an exclusive excerpt of the new “Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2012” (Krause Publications, 2011).

Over the past few years, more American antique shops and shows have begun including West German pottery, especially in the larger cities. However, it remains primarily an Internet collectible. This presents difficulties for collectors who are curious, but often only vaguely familiar with the subject, having heard the term, plus the phrase “fat lava” and perhaps a few company names.

Few are aware of the range and depth in style and quality. Kevin Graham, one of the primary researchers, has so far matched more than 13,000 form numbers with companies. Estimating an average of three sizes per form and three different glazes per form, and that’s over 100,000 items a collector could find without a duplicate. Consider that some forms are already known in 50 to 100 glazes, and more form numbers are being attributed regularly, and the variations could easily top 200,000.

This Jasba vase stands about 7 1/2 inches tall and features a powerful orangish-red glaze with the brown underglaze showing through on the neck ridges. The retail price is set at $85.
This Jasba vase stands about 7 1/2 inches tall and features a powerful orangish-red glaze with the brown underglaze showing through on the neck ridges. The retail price is set at $85.
Photo courtesy ginforsodditiques.com

Collecting Approaches
The West German pottery field allows collectors to enjoy this pursuit whether money is fairly tight or just waiting to be spent on the right object. A large percentage of collectible West German items will never go over $100 and may be found under $50 with just a bit of effort. Collectors who like to buy often and build a collection quickly should be able to do just that if they enjoy variety.

Some lines offer slightly more refined options, such as trying to find all of the 50 to 60 glazes known on Ruscha form 313. For even more of a challenge, there are the nearly 200 versions of Scheurich form 271-22, or the over 200 versions of Scheurich 414-16. While those forms are easy to find, certain finishes range from uncommon to rare. It’s also possible to find many of the glazes on a wide variety of forms, so collectors can search by form or by glaze.

Items made during the first part of the era (early 1950s) often had extensive handwork in the decoration, which is the usual meaning of “handarbeit” as part of the mark. Around 1965, companies moved toward glaze colors and chemistry for the effects, including the thick, often volcanic glazes now called “fat lava.” All too often, fat lava is used as if synonymous with West German pottery, but even at its peak it remained a sub-category.


Almost 100 companies have been identified working during this era (1949-90), ranging from those well known before, such as Hutschenreuther, Karlsruhe and Rosenthal, to those that came and went within the West German era, such as Carstens Tönnieshof, Ceramano and Keto. In addition to the commercial potteries, studio potters enjoyed a matching creative rush, further extending the range of styles available to collectors.

Most of the companies focused on items that were widely marketable, but almost all of the companies made some superior items, and a few focused on smaller, higher-quality production. Of course, most successful designs were also imitated by other companies.

Collectors should pay particular attention to the proportions on items, since this will often make the difference between an item that pleases temporarily and one that endures. Many of the finishes on West German pottery, especially the fat lava/volcanic glazes, can obscure or overwhelm the form on first look. Some of the softer, more traditional glazes are actually as complex and pleasing as some of the more radical volcanic glazes.

As with most new collecting fields, it takes time to get a sense of where a given item falls within the quality range, and that’s even more problematic with an Internet-based field such as West German pottery. Collectors should spend some time viewing various sites, some of which include large numbers of vases, for just such learning experiences. Unfortunately, few of the sites have done extensive work displaying better pieces in much quantity, and pricing is often too erratic to give a sense of relative quality, all of which has slowed the growth of the market.

Scheurich produced the Fabiola glaze for a long period on many items and with several variations.  The striking quality makes it popular with collectors, partly over-riding the availability when figuring price.  Items in the 4-6
Scheurich produced the Fabiola glaze for a long period on many items and with several variations. The striking quality makes it popular with collectors, partly over-riding the availability when figuring price. Items in the 4-6″ range can sell for $25-50, while larger or more aesthetically pleasing forms can bring $150-250. As always uncommon items can easily go higher.
Photo courtesy Carina Poleon

Plaques and Hanging Plates
Several companies made wall art, but the master of plaques was Helmut Schaeffenacker. Motifs ranged from stylized animals to still lifes and highly abstract images. Items about 12 inches by 10 inches are most common, but Schaeffenacker produced some items over 24 inches and a few significantly larger. Karlsruhe also produced high quality, often large and thick plaques. Although they show up on the market less often, prices so far are lower than for similar Schaeffenacker items.

The largest producer of plaques and hanging plates was Ruscha, especially in the late 1950s and into the ‘60s. Earlier items feature a matte-black background with an incised and enameled decoration. Bird and horse motifs are common, especially in the 7” diameter size. Motifs such as clowns and bullfighting scenes are more difficult to find, while the most popular is the Hanns Welling design, “Paris.” Although artists were working from a pattern, they were allowed a fair amount of leeway in adapting the design. This results in interesting variations but also a wide range in quality. Sizes 10” and larger are significantly more difficult to find, but they are known up to at least 13 inches.

Many of the later Ruscha wall items are of lesser quality, but some large plaques featuring horses, or horse-and-chariot designs, are an exception. Another exception is the “mushroom” plaques or chargers, featuring raised discs in the center and a mottled glaze.

Keto, Kiechle and Ceramano also worked with the matte-black background and enamel designs. Most of the Keto work is average, but some designs, such as “Surreal,” are striking exceptions. Kiechle work is of finer quality and more difficult to find, while the Ceramano items of this type are quite rare. They were done early in the company’s history and often on Ruscha blanks.


Initial work, not surprisingly, was in German, including several works by Horst Makus, mostly out of print, which focus on the items from the earlier period, about 1950-1964. Dr. Michael Thomas published “Deutsche Keramik und Porcellane der 60er und 70er Jahre,” focusing on items from the 1960s and 70s.

Work in English is still limited but growing. Mark Hill has now published the second edition of the exhibition catalog, “Fat Lava.”

Collector Kevin James Graham’sWest & East German Pottery: Marks and Form Numbers” is now available on CD, as is the book, “Spritzdecor to Fat Lava.”

One of the earliest Internet sources in English, and still the most extensive on the net, is the Gin-For’s Odditiques site, which includes several essays, a page of marks and brief histories of several main companies, and several videos on identifying West German pottery.

Also visit Pottery and Glass – a forum with an extensive threads on West German pottery, numerous pictures.

Searching the Net
Collectors will still have trouble building a collection just through local shops, so the Internet will be a primary source for at least the near future. Numerous sites — from 1st dibs to Trocadero to Ruby Lane — have a variety of West German items. Identification of companies has improved significantly in just the past two years, but information beyond that remains scarce among dealers, which means prices vary from bargain to absurdly high. Although proportions and finer aspects of the decoration are hard for less-experienced collectors to determine from pictures, take time to look and to ask questions. Some dealers are learning more about this new field.

West German items are more widely available on European-based Web sites. Even on these sites, most of the items are lower to middle range, which is sometimes reflected in the price, sometimes not. Take note that shipping rates and time are significant factors when buying from Europe. When buying from sellers in Germany, purchasing multiple items can save even more on shipping than in most other countries, and the sellers are generally quite helpful in this regard.

A few key companies: Bay, Bückeburg, Carstens, Ceramano, Dümler & Breiden, ES Keramik, Hutschenreuther, Jasba, Karlsruhe, Otto, Ruscha, Schaeffenacker, Scheurich, Schlossberg, Silberdistel, Steuler, Ü (Uebelacker), van Daalen.

A few key designers:  Heiner Balzar, Adele Bolz, Trude Carstens, Ursula Fesca, Otto Gerharz, Fridegart Glatzle, Willi Hack, Gerda Heuckeroth, Bodo Mans, A. Seide, Heinz Siery, Kurt Tschoerner, Hanns Welling, Cilli Wörsdörfer, Cari Zalloni, and Clare Zange.

Forrest Poston has specialized in West German pottery for the last 12 years. He discovered the genre while looking for a collecting field that wasn’t dominated by other dealers. His time is divided among his wife Ginny, their beloved cats and his extensive retail website, Ginforsodditiques.com, which features pottery from dozens of makers, styles and glazes.

More from West German Pottery expert Forrest Poston

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