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.
The 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).
The 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.
Cybis produced. To date, I have only seen these two examples come up for sale. In addition to the sepia-brown shadings that gave this finish its name, these both have a very typical circa-1950s-Cybis flower. Cybis stopped using the Cypia finish before 1960 and so it’s likely that any of these date from 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 design/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 well 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 piece 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 and is now retired.
Snowy differs from the standard Baby Owl only in the decoration of the lower portion.
Although 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. I have never seen a glazed one. He stands between 17.5” and 18” high. The final price upon retirement was $150 for the white version and $200 for the color. There is a rumor, which I’ve been unable to confirm by locating any other examples, that this piece may have been a Holland Mold. It is true that this was one of only two owls that were made during the 1950s which is when Cybis was using Holland Molds for several bird studies.
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 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.
And speaking of Great Horned Owls….
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.)
When 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.
A 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.
At 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 man were actually made. I would very much like 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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