Calabasas auction house Profiles in History has handled some absolutely incredible items from movie and TV history in the last 30 years. Marilyn Monroe’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch, The whip from Indiana Jones, and the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The most iconic items in movie history pass through their doors, and some of the most unusual. The massive catalog for their September 29 auction includes almost 2000 artifacts, but one caught my eye like no other, Lot #891: “Original Sascha Brastoff Prehistoric Fish Steel Sculpture Used In The Home Of Dr. Morbius In Forbidden Planet.” I instantly recognized the 4-foot wide fish-on-a-stick from the movie, but never knew it was created by one of Los Angeles’s most celebrated midcentury artists, or that it still existed.
Sascha Brastoff was a painter, a sculptor, a ceramicist, a costume designer, a jewelry maker, a dancer, and general bon vivant. His clients included Joan Crawford and Carmen Miranda, who he was also fond of impersonating. “Brastoff was a Hollywood character. He was an entertainer,” says historian Alan Hess. “I’ve seen pictures of him dressed as Carmen Miranda. I don’t know if that was for movies or some other kind of entertainment.”
In 1953, Brastoff hired architect A. Quincy Jones to design a studio and showroom at 11520 West Olympic Boulevard in Sawtelle. “It was a real eye catching thing,” says Hess. “Meant to promote him.” A few months later Brastoff threw a lavish opening party there for an exhibition of new work called Sculpture in Steel.
The guest list for that evening included Marilyn Monroe, Edward G. Robinson, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. And, according to Brastoff’s biographer Steve Conti, Brastoff’s mentor Winthrop Rockefeller. Rockefeller was the grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, and Conti says, “Knew he was going to get this major inheritance.” “Winthrop took a significant amount of money and put Sascha into business.”
Soon after the exhibit closed in 1955, six of the arc-welded works were loaned to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for their big budget science fiction epic Forbidden Planet.
The film industry has a long history in Los Angeles art and architecture. “Movie studios single handedly saved modern architecture through the ‘30s,” says Hess. “So many architects that went on to be really important were just scratching by during the depression but they were given jobs by the studios to help them survive.” Architects Martin Stern and Disney studio designer KEM Weber started out as art directors in film and William Pereira won an Academy Award in 1942. “He was Mr. Hollywood before he was Mr. Architecture.”
In Forbidden Planet Walter Pidgeon plays Dr. Morbius, a scientist who sets up a colony on desert planet Altair IV. “Modernism and the desert go together,” says Hess of the house in the movie. “The structural expression and indoor/outdoor nature of it. The fish is like a fossil. The desiccated nature of it looked like something you might have dug up in the desert. It’s the perfect ornament for Morbius’s house.”
“It was a Coelacanth,” says Conti. “One had been discovered in 1938 and there were a lot of science fiction spins on prehistoric animals that were able to survive the millennia.” After filming, the artwork was returned to the Brastoff showroom where it became the centerpiece of a koi pond. When he left that building in 1964, Brastoff installed the sculpture in his West Los Angeles living room where it remained until he passed away in 1993. “One of his friends was selling out of the Santa Monica Antique Market, says Conti. “They put the fish in there and somebody from back east purchased it for $5000.”
Out of sight for more than two decades, the Brastoff artwork has an estimated value of $8,000-$12,000. I imagine the original sculpture won’t have trouble fetching that, considering it is a crossover piece of modern art with an exceptional history, and that talking replicas of Robby the Robot are priced at nearly triple that amount.