The Cybis Owls

Honestly, who doesn’t like owls? (well…probably rodents) Owls have been a hugely popular collecting genre for ages, and Cybis depicted them several times in porcelain.

BABY OWL by CybisThe Cybis owl that shows up in countless collections and online sales is their iconic Baby Owl which was introduced in 1957. This adorable owlet is the longest-running sculpture that Cybis ever offered, and his original issue price of $25 increased to $195 over the ensuing 60 years. As this image shows, there are often slight variations in ‘perch’ colors between one owl and another which is to be expected since each Cybis sculpture is completely hand painted. By the way, this piece is sometimes offered for sale as ‘baby screech owl’ or ‘baby snowy owl’ but it was never identified by Cybis as being any particular species. He/she is definitely not a screech owl (none have white plumage) nor even a snowy owl because snowies don’t turn their typical white until they’re quite a bit older than this. The Baby Owl is 4.25” high; it was never issued on a base although at one time I owned one which Cybis had mounted on a square dark wood base (unfortunately I no longer have a photograph).

BABY OWL artist proof in brown by CybisThe rare but very badly photographed Baby Owl shown above is an artist’s proof done in brown. It was sold at auction some years ago along with an example of the standard white version in the same lot.

To date, I have only seen these two examples of a Baby Owl in ‘Cypia’ tonation come up for sale. In addition to the sepia-brown shadings that gave this finish its name, it has a very typical circa-1950s-Cybis flower. The studio stopped using the Cypia finish before 1960 and so it’s likely that these two were made in 1957 or 1958. (The standard color Baby Owls are impossible to date unless they happen to have a ca.-1950s Cybis name stamp instead of a handwritten signature.)

This juxtaposition of an early, Cypia-toned, Baby Owl with a subsequent standard retail version illustrates not only the paint and decoration difference but also “what a difference the mold makes”! The owl molds are the same but look at the difference in the end result: The Cypia owl was cast from a mold that was either brand-new or had only been used once before, because the feathers and branch surface details are sharp and clear. The standard owl’s mold was clearly at the end of its useful life (if not already past it) because many of those details have been lost. This occurs because with each use, a thin layer of liquid porcelain remains on the inner surface of the mold, making each subsequent casting slightly less detailed than the original design. Most people would not even notice the ‘softness’ of the white Baby Owl unless it was placed next to one that was cast from a fresh/new mold, as was done here.

This holiday version of the Baby Owl, issued in the late 1980s, appears on a 1988 list named as Owl ‘Snowy’ for $150.

Snowy differs from the standard Baby Owl only in the decoration of the lower portion. This photo also illustrates the difference between a casting from an older mold (Snowy) compared to a newer one.

 

GREAT HORNED OWL in color circa 1950s by CybisGREAT HORNED OWL in white bisque circa 1950s by CybisAlthough the Baby Owl is the most well-known, he was not the first owl that flew out of the Cybis studio. This honor belongs to the Great Horned Owl that was introduced in 1956 and retired in 1968. Although the museum publication Cybis in Retrospect states that he was made in three color versions — white bisque, “decorated’ (bisque color) and “stained glass” (glazed color) — the Cybis 1979 catalog lists it as only having been offered in the bisque (white or color) finish.

This glazed/stained glass example is the only one that I have discovered. It is part of the extensive Cybis collection at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, and is currently on display as part of their exhibit “Fine Feathered Friends: Birds as Mainstay and Muse” which is on view until March 13, 2022. The display also contains the only other Great Horned Owl produced by Cybis, as well. My sincere thanks to the Museum for permission to include their photo of their owl here. The all-over glazing indicates that this owl was made before 1960.

This sculpture stands between 17.5” and 18” high. His final price upon retirement was $150 for the white bisque and $200 for the bisque color. There is a rumor, which I’ve been unable to confirm as yet, that this piece may have been a Holland Mold. It is true that this was introduced during the 1950s which is when Cybis was using Holland Molds for almost all of their bird pieces.

In my early days of Cybis collecting (back in the pre-internet dark ages) I would scour the NY Times classified ads for tag sales mentioning Cybis, and one day saw “ceramic birds incl cybis owl” in the text. There was no phone number, just an address in Brooklyn. I assumed it was probably the Baby Owl which I already had, and almost didn’t bother making the 80-mile roundtrip but thought perhaps there might be another Cybis bird or two there as well. When I walked into the apartment, I was astounded to see the bisque color version of the Great Horned Owl in perfect condition sitting atop a cabinet with a price tag of $25. I hadn’t come prepared with any packing materials for something this large and the person conducting the sale wasn’t very helpful. Not wanting to even hint that the item was worth more than they were asking for it (collectors have absolutely no shame) I casually clutched it to my bosom while handing over the cash and saying breezily “Oh don’t worry, no problem, I’ll just take it as it is.” Once out the door I whipped off my winter jacket, wrapped up the owl, put it oh so carefully onto the passenger seat of my car, and drove the entire way home with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the owl… just in case. (Collectors also tend to be a little crazy.) Unfortunately this is another piece that I didn’t take a photograph of before I sold it a couple of decades later, but I will always remember it as my first “big find”. The colors on my owl were softer and more muted than the example shown above.

November 2021 update #1: A serendipitous email exchange has led to a fascinating discovery about an unexpected use of this owl. One day in the mid-1960s, a group of Cybis artists decided, on a whim, to make a lamp out of him! Someone was dispatched to a local store to buy all the necessary lamp parts, while Jules and Bill in the mold shop cast a dozen of these – not in porcelain, but in a heavier ceramic for greater sturdiness and weight. After the painting, firing and assembling, the resulting lamp was slightly more than 3 feet tall. These lamps were never offered for retail sale by the studio; this was simply a fun idea that the artists came up with, and so they just did it. All of the lamps went home with the employees – the artist who told me about this, had two of them. Unfortunately, he doesn’t recall where they ultimately ended up. However, even accounting for breakage-attrition over the decades, it’s possible that one or more of these owl lamps might show up on eBay one of these days (if they haven’t already.) It’s uncertain whether they were signed Cybis; they probably were not, given the non-porcelain material and the lack of retail usage. If anyone does have one of these lamps, I’d love to include a photo here! There is a contact form link at the bottom of this page.

November 2021 update #2: A correspondent’s question regarding the chances of this owl being an original Cybis design, rather than from a Holland Mold, inspired me to do a Google search for ‘large vintage ceramic owl’; among the non-relevant results was this one:
(I have removed the link in this screen snip because my browser’s security settings immediately warned me that it is a known phishing site.) The presence of ‘chalkware’ in the caption prompted another search, this time for ‘large chalkware owl.’ Lo and behold….
Was this a copy, or a slightly different version, of the mold shown above? The ‘ear tufts’ are completely different; however, they are still biologically accurate, as the University of Michigan’s photo of an actual Great Horned Owl shows! These tufts – called plumicorns – are neither ears nor horns; the owl can raise and lower them, especially when in an aggressive, defensive, or alert posture. The description of this chalkware version gave the height as 21.5”; the Cybis owl stands between 17” and 18” tall. Is it possible that this was an earlier mold that turned out to be breakage-prone and was subsequently redesigned with lower tufts?
Knowing that Marwal utilized several Holland molds for their chalkware items during the 1950s and 1960s – including the girl and the boy heads also used by Cybis – I then searched for ‘Marwal owl’ and hit the identity jackpot. This is clearly another case of both Cybis and Marwal buying and utilizing the same molds from Holland, the difference this time being in the heights. I mused upon whether there were two mold sizes – a common occurrence – until my correspondent pointed out that the stump section on the Cybis piece is shorter; I’d been fixating on the owl itself, and totally missed that!
This Cybis/Marwal difference follows what happened with the Head of Girl in the same circumstances. As noted in my post about Holland Molds used by Cybis, the mold version sold to Marwal and to hobbyists in general has a wavy lock of hair above her right temple; the Cybis mold, which they purchased the rights to use, does not. The difference in the Great Horned Owl mold is the height of the stump section; Cybis ‘cut off’ the bottom three inches, thus lowering the height while keeping the owl itself the same size. Although the Marwal owls are marked Marwal and not Holland Mold, the odds are highly in favor of this being a Holland mold also. I have not yet found any hobbyist copies to verify that, but if anyone does have one, there’s a contact form link below. And many thanks to A.A. for leading me to this new backstory about this piece!

And speaking of Great Horned Owls….
GREAT HORNED OWL KOOS KOOS KOOS in color by CybisGREAT HORNED OWL KOOS KOOS KOOS in white by CybisKoosKoosKoos detail
In 1975 Cybis created a second Great Horned Owl which is quite different from the first. Named Great Horned Owl ‘KooKoosKoos’ to differentiate it from the 1956 sculpture, this too was available in both white and color versions but the “white” version was not the usual 100%-white-bisque such as seen in the 1950s owl or other Cybis sculptures. The white colorway is meant to be an albino-plumaged version of the owl; unlike this example, the typical white-bisque sculpture would have no color anywhere at all. It is the same height as Cybis’ first owl, at 20” including the attached wood base, but could not have been more different. Although one of their most expensive limited editions at the time, it nevertheless quickly became a favorite among collectors. The declared editions were 150 for the white owl at approximately $1950,  but only 50 for the brown one which was $3250. The white version closed at $2250 in 1978, and the color version in 1979 at its original issue price. This owl was sculpted by Charles Oldham.

(The spelling of the sculpture’s title is not a typo; Cybis did indeed use that exact spelling and formatted it as a single word/name as shown.)

WOODY OWL by CybisWhen this little fellow was first introduced, Cybis titled him ‘Owl, Woody’ but shortly thereafter renamed him Woody Owl. At 4” high he is just a hair (feather??) shorter than the Baby Owl. According to the 1983 introductory brochure Woody is a saw-whet owl and was available for $115.

 

This adorable trio is Nestling Owls ‘Harriet, Hank and Hoot’. They are 7” tall, a non-limited edition introduced in 1988 at $325 and ending at $695.

 

SCREECH OWL AND SIBLINGS by CybisScreech Owl and Siblings detail 1Screech Owl and Siblings detail 2A case of awkward naming is this sculpture of an adult screech owl and owlets. Cybis named them Screech Owl and Siblings… which is a bit of tortured syntax because the small grey owls within the branch cavity are not “siblings” of the adult screech owl, they are its offspring (unless the meaning is that the owlets are siblings, but being in the same nest what else would they be??) This study is of substantial size (16.5″ high, 19.5″ wide) and was designed by Charles Oldham. A 1988 Cybis price list shows it as a limited edition of 100, priced at $3925.

 

AMERICAN SCREECH OWL WITH VIRGINIA CREEPER by CybisAt long last I have finally (in August 2017) located a photo of the American Screech Owl with Virginia Creeper, an edition of 500 introduced in 1969. This photo was in the 1970 Cybis catalog which is the only one in which this piece was ever pictured. The sculpture is 13″ high overall on its wood base. A 1969 Cybis price list shows it as retailing for $1500 which was the highest-priced single limited edition sculpture that year. Despite the high price-tag it sold out quickly; the 1970 price list shows it as “fully subscribed” and no longer available. It is not known how many were actually made. I would love to someday see a color photo of this piece to see whether the vine was portrayed in its autumn color which is a vivid red. If anyone has one of these and would be kind enough to share a picture, there is a contact-form link at the bottom of this post.

 

Here is an adorable small owl that for some unfathomable reason was never released as a retail piece. What a cutie! It was among the pieces included in the liquidation of the Cybis studio’s stock in late 2019. No dimensions were given but its size in relation to other items in the auction lot indicate that it is probably about 4″ high which is comparable to the Baby Owl and Woody Owl. The appearance of this owl is so distinctive that I have no hesitation in dubbing him (or her) as a unreleased Screech Owl. The other three small North American owls (the Elf, Pygmy, and Saw-Whet) do not have ear tufts.

To my knowledge, these are all of the owls that Cybis ever produced. It seems a shame that there aren’t more, because they did do owls quite well. It would have been interesting to see a sculpture of a Barn Owl, Snowy Owl, Saw-Whet Owl or an adult Tawny Owl. Which reminds me of the riddle in an episode of Monarch of the Glen, asking why the pair of Tawny Owls refused to go out in the rain? Because it was too wet to woo, too wet to woo….

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