From a collector’s point of view, the issue size of a limited-edition item is of major importance; it’s therefore disconcerting (to say the least) if the artist or manufacturer plays fast and loose with that particular attribute.
The concept of marketing retail items as “limited editions” didn’t really take hold until the Sixties. 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. However, 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. (The really serious collectors, however, are likely to home in on the rare surviving un-numbered examples from the 1950s instead.) But problems arise when the “official” Cybis literature’s edition size conflicts with reality: the stated edition size is contradicted by a larger number shown on an actual piece. This usually happens in cases where the original declared edition size was subsequently reduced by Cybis to a smaller number during the period of availability. One would think that the sculptures should have been numbered in sequence as created, or nearly so, in an atelier setting such as this. Certainly if a catalog published by Cybis cites an edition size of 325 for a sculpture, we shouldn’t find any bearing a number in the high 300s or 400s… right? But such pieces do exist. How, and why?
One possible explanation is that the Cybis publication is in error. If that were true, that would mean that the 1979 catalog appendix, which is the only reference that Cybis produced directly (they collaborated on the much smaller Cybis in Retrospect museum exhibit catalog in 1971) would then have more than a half-dozen blatant edition-size errors in it, including several in which a reduced issue size would have been revised upward again… a highly unlikely event. In at least two cases this cannot be true because those sculptures’ editions were completed before the catalog went to press. So we have to take the Cybis literature at face value and assume that when they say that only 325 were available for retail sale, that’s the correct amount. But that doesn’t explain why pieces with higher sculpture numbers were obviously sold.
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 from collectors of various art porcelain brands both in the USA and abroad; I suppose it is possible and as they say: all’s fair in love, war, and business.
Another possibility comes from the collector’s end. There were certainly those to whom it was important to have “matching numbers” on all their limited editions, as a personal preference (or quirk, depending on your point of view.) This was probably 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’. I suppose it’s not impossible that a gallery would send in their order for the newest sculpture for Mrs. I.B. Reallywealthy with the notation “must be numbered #400 to match customer’s collection”… even though Cybis had already reduced its original declared retail issue of 500 to 325.
Another scenario might be that Cybis produced and numbered the majority or even perhaps all of some sculptures either before or very shortly after introducing the piece. To discover numbers in the high 300s and 400s on a design initially advertised with a limit of 500 but then re-advertised during production as having been reduced to only 325 (as were the first five carousel pieces), could mean that Cybis numbered all 500 of them early on, in sequence from 1 to 500, but they were not necessarily shipped out to the retailers in that same order. This is how a piece numbered #164 could have been pulled off a studio shelf and shipped to Wakefied-Searce on Monday, and then on Wednesday #430 came off another shelf to be shipped to Bonwit Teller, followed by #278 sent off to Armstrong’s on Friday. If at some later date Cybis decided to not sell as many as they originally intended, those higher-numbered pieces would have already been in circulation.
This scenario would actually fall under the “final issue” parameters, because in Cybis terms “Declared Issue” and “Final Issue” mean “how many of these sculptures will be available for retail purchase” – it doesn’t mean “numbered from 1 to 500” versus “numbered from 1 to 325.” The question in the above case becomes: What happened to the remaining 175 sculptures that never left the studio? Were they destroyed? Are they still sitting on shelves in the Cybis warehouse?
A reduction in issue size could result from “firing fatalities.” If something went wrong during a subsequent firing of an already-numbered sculpture, its replacement might have been given the next sequential number instead of the same number that had been used on the kiln-killed piece. Logic suggests that such replacement pieces should have been given the originally-assigned number instead of a brand new one (to avoid any future questions about the numbering, if nothing else) but again: who knows?
Or perhaps an even simpler explanation exists, if fairly large sectors of the original production run had numbers pre-assigned early on. We don’t know how many pieces typically went into a single kiln firing but if many pieces of an already-numbered edition were lost in production at various times, that would probably result in a downward revison of that issue size… and it also would explain some “over-numbered” pieces being among the lucky survivors of bad firings or in-studio mishaps. If the failure rate was high, and the studio had no more extra blanks on hand to make up the difference, it would make sense to call it quits at a lower retail quantity, regardless of what the actual numbers painted onto the surviving pieces happened to be.
The collector market tends to take an officially declared edition size as gospel and thus if there are only supposed to be 200 of something and then genuine examples turn up that are numbered 316 (or even 202) it raises questions in the minds of potential buyers. It is unfortunate that these sculpture/edition size number discrepancies can cause confusion now that so many Cybis porcelains have made their way into the online/secondary market.
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