Edition Size Discrepancies: A Cybis Conundrum

From a collector’s point of view, the issue size of a limited-edition item is of major importance; it’s therefore disconcerting if the artist or manufacturer plays fast and loose with that particular attribute.

The concept of marketing retail items as “limited editions” didn’t become widespread until the 1960s. The Boehm Porcelain studio was one of the first to do this, during the 1950s, and Cybis followed suit with its’ first four limited edition pieces in 1960. By the end of the 1960s the term “limited edition collectible” was firmly established in commerce; in large part we can thank or blame The Franklin Mint for that. The Beanie Baby bubble of the 1990s, fueled by the burgeoning internet and by eBay in particular, is a textbook example of the limited-edition marketing technique run amok.

In today’s online collectibles market, where hundreds of Cybis listings can be seen on any given day, the limited edition sculptures should command most of the attention. (However, given the current market, that’s an open question!) What about instances when the “official” Cybis literature’s edition size conflicts with reality? That is, when the stated edition size is contradicted by a higher number appearing on an actual piece. One would think that the sculptures should have been numbered in sequence as created, or nearly so. If a catalog published by Cybis cites an edition size of 325 for a sculpture, we should not find any bearing a number in the high 300s or 400s, but such pieces do exist. Why?

One possible explanation is that the Cybis publication is in error regarding the final edition size. If that were true, that would mean that the 1978/79 catalog appendix, which is the only reference that Cybis themselves produced, must have many edition-size errors in it….an unlikely event. So let’s take the Cybis literature at face value and assume that when they say that only 325 were available for retail sale, that’s how many they made. But that doesn’t explain why pieces with higher sculpture numbers exist.

Another theory is that Cybis deliberately did some occasional out-of-sequence “overnumbering” to make it appear (to collectors, retailers, and competing porcelain art companies who were ‘scouting’ retailer shelf stock) that the sculpture was selling out faster than it actually was. I have heard this theory more than once; I suppose it is possible and as they say: All’s fair in love, war, and business.

Another possible scenario comes from the collector’s end. There were those to whom it was important to have “matching numbers” on all their limited editions, as a personal preference. This was more common on the ongoing series such as the carousel animals or the North American Indians, and I suppose it could also have been done ‘across the board’. A retail gallery could send in their initial order for the newest sculpture for Mrs. I. B. Reallywealthy with the notation “must be numbered #400 to match customer’s collection”… even though by the time the piece came to be physically created, Cybis had already reduced its original declared retail issue of 500 to 325.

What did the studio mean by the phrase “final issue”? In Cybis parlance the terms ‘Declared Issue’ and ‘Final Issue’ meant “how many of these sculptures we intend to make” and “how many were actually physically made”; it did NOT necessarily mean “there will be 500 pieces, numbered from 1 to 500” or “there were 325 pieces, numbered from 1 to 325.” So theoretically, one could have an edition size reduced from 500 to 325, but still have pieces that went out of the door bearing a sculpture number between 326 and 500. In fact, I own a such a piece myself: It is #253 of an edition that was declared at 500 in 1977 but was reduced to 225 in 1980 and shown as “completed” at that point.

Another monkey wrench is thrown into the works by the fact that the studio supposedly assigned the sculpture numbers not when each piece was made, but instead when they received the order from the retailer. Here’s a hypothetical example: Brielle Galleries might have ordered two Nashua upon its introduction, and those two orders were assigned sculpture numbers 210 and 211 because Cybis had already received 209 orders for Nashua from other retailers. Production problems abounded with this piece and the studio finally threw in the towel after making only 100 of them. However, because Brielle was a major and much-favored retailer they were likely to have already received their two pieces before the 100th Nashua was made.

However, this doesn’t explain how a sculpture could be numbered #501 when the original, unreduced edition size was only 500. There was no reason why any piece should be numbered higher than the largest quantity that the studio originally stated that they would made…but some do exist, and they are not replicas or reproductions.

When ‘Completed’ Doesn’t Mean What It Says

Update, August 2020: The following is a new and disturbing insight into why some “overnumbered” pieces may exist.

Cybis collectors have always believed what the studio said in its advertising literature and price lists: That when a limited edition was “completed”, that was that. No more will be made. Finito. The end. After all, we saw as early as Page 5 of the very first Cybis catalog (1964) that “Limited editions are never renewed.”

This appears on the last page of all Cybis price lists during the 1970s, under ‘Legend’ and sounds quite definitive.

Major Cybis retailers touted the exclusiveness of Cybis limited editions, such as on page 1 of Brielle Galleries’ full-color spring 1980 catalog showing Queen Esther and Lady Macbeth under the heading From Portraits in Porcelain, never again to be made…

Ah, but on the Summer 1982 price list, the ‘legend’ area has changed from what it was during the 1970s. There is no mention anymore of designs being destroyed after edition-completion or retirement.

The February 1989 Cybis price list has changed even more. Sculptures are no longer shown if they are not actively available for sale. However, there is this line added:
I had always assumed this meant “We can tell you what a piece is if you don’t see it here.” However, I have recently learned that this is not what this line of text meant.

What this actually meant was “If you want a completed edition, don’t worry, we can probably make it for you anyway.”

I don’t know exactly when “completed” lost its original meaning but the studio was definitely willing to do this in the 2000s and I suspect during the 1990s as well. That would dovetail with the change in price-list wording. The fact that they were offering to produce supposedly-never-to-be-made again pieces (if the purchaser was willing to pay the hefty price) means that the “designs” (molds) were not, in fact, ever destroyed. I had previously given the studio the benefit of the doubt regarding the Hall of Fame replica editions (coincidentally, those began at just about that same time) perhaps having been cast from a leftover finished piece…but now it looks as though they were ‘born’ from the original, never-destroyed molds and simply downsized.

This discovery creates an additional explanation for an “overnumbered” piece. Let’s imagine that in 1998, Jane Doe wants a Mary Mary whose edition was completed in 1979. Of course nobody is selling one, not even on eBay (remember this is a hypothetical!) so she contacts the studio just in case they still might have one left. She’s told that they don’t, but for $$$$ dollars they can make one for her (so much for “destroyed molds”) and they will assign it a sculpture number. What sculpture number will she get?

The 1979 catalog says that Mary Mary‘s original edition of 750 was reduced to 500 before it was completed. So theoretically, the Mary Mary that Jane eventually receives from Cybis in the 1990s might bear any sculpture number that had not physically gone out the studio door before they declared the edition “completed.” The only question is whether Jane’s would be numbered #501 if the studio really did send 500 of those out to retailers during the 1970s.

It gets better. Let’s continue our hypothesis and say that Cybis really did send 500 of those out the door decades ago. Jane Doe can still get a brand-new Mary Mary, because during the 1990s the studio invented a “10% Policy” regarding pieces marked A.P. (Artist Proof.) They told prospective purchasers that up to an additional 10% of any limited edition could be made and sold as an ‘Artist Proof’. Thus, they might make as many as 50 more of Mary Mary (as APs), bringing the possible final quantity created to 550. This discovery makes the A.P. designation much less significant than most people believed and, in some cases, completely meaningless; see the newly-revised Editions post for more information about the studio adding A.P. to 1940s pieces during the 2000s.

I am not saying that every “overnumbered” Cybis piece is a 1990s or 2000s “fresh out of the oven” item, but the possibility cannot be discounted, now that we know the studio was doing this in the 2000s and probably the 1990s as well. For most of the limited editions that were completed during the 1960s and 1970s, one of the other scenarios (custom numbering by retailer or customer request, retailer-order sculpture number assignment, or jumping ahead in sculpture numbers to give the impression that the edition was going to be closed fairly soon) is a far more likely explanation. But it’s well to keep in mind that Cybis edition sizes are not something that anyone should regard as having been written in stone when looking at the quantity that the studio showed for them.

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