The Cybis Porcelain Chess Set

One of the most ambitious porcelain works by the post-1950s Cybis studio was also perhaps their most unusual. This is the elaborate chess set that was first created during the 1970s, although there were actually three versions produced over the course of the next two decades.

The story of the Cybis Chess Set began in late 1971 when the White House commissioned the creation of a one of a kind chess set to be presented as an official gift of state from the United States to Russia to mark the historic 1972 Moscow Summit meeting between President Nixon and Soviet Premier Brezhnev. The design appears in the records of the US Copyright Office applications that year as Chess set (Assorted Medieval figures on bases) 6 porcelain chessmen; Application title Chest Set; © Cybis; 1 Mar 1972; GP79764. Because the chessmen were the same in both colors only six distinct sculpture designs needed to be copyrighted. (yes, the entry does actually say “chest” set!)

The set itself was inspired in large part (although not in its entirety) by portions of the 14th-century Nine Heroes Tapestries, which themselves were based on a poem written by Jacques de Longuyon in 1310. The “nine heroes” represented in the tapestry were drawn equally from Hebrew (Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus), Christian (Charlemagne, Arthur, and Godfrey of Boullion) and “pagan” (Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar) history. The Cybis pieces were based on at least two of these: the king represents Arthur, and the pawn reproduces one of Alexander’s archers.

king-arthur-tapestry-9-heroesking-arthur-tapestry-detail-1king-arthur-tapestry-detail-2The top photo shows the full surviving King Arthur Tapestry, and the others detail views of the king. As will be shown below, the Cybis king is quite faithful to the original in design. The fourth photo shows the archer from the Alexander Tapestry, upon which the Cybis pawn is based. The tapestries currently reside with the Metropolian Museum of Art in New York City, at their location known as The Cloisters which showcases medieval art.

The designer of the Cybis chess set was Harry Burger Jr. of Trenton, NJ. Mr. Burger was a freelance artist who designed a number of sculptures for Cybis even during their early years of production in the late 1950s. His work for Cybis included the Chinese Goddess ‘Kwan Yin’, a madonna bust, and the Sleeping Beauty ballet pair, among others. Mr. Burger had seen the Nine Heroes tapestries in 1949 during a visit to The Cloisters, and according to a 1972 NY Times article he was inspired to create chess piece models based upon the tapestry figures. When, more than two decades later, a request came from the White House for an appropriate gift of state for the Russian visit, Mr. Burger’s models proved to be the perfect choice!


The Presidential Set

PRESIDENTIAL CHESS SET 1972 by CybisThe one of a kind set that was presented to Premier Brezhnev is known as the Cybis Presidential Chess Set although it has also been referred to as the Summit Presentation Chess Set. There are 32 chessmen, each approximately 7″ high; unlike a typical chess set, there is very little size differential between pieces, even the pawns. The two colorways are burgundy and turquoise.

The set was accompanied by a 3’x3′ chessboard crafted from curly maple and curly black walnut, and housed in a velvet-lined black walnut chest. The maple was sourced from a 200-year-old tree in Montgomery Country, Pennsylvania; the black walnut was sourced from adjoining Bucks County. Cybis also crafted a porcelain Presidential Seal that was inlaid into the underside of the lid, while a brass plaque reading To the People of the The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics From President and Mrs Richard Nixon and the People of the United States of America, May 1972 was affixed to the top of the chest. The set was to eventually be housed at the State Historical Museum of Russia in Moscow, although I have been unable to discover whether it is still there.

An article in a February 1975 issue of the New York Times relates this about the chess set’s history:

On only several months’ notice, the White House contacted Cybis about a Presidential gift for Leonid I. Brezhnev, the Soviet leader. After much discussion, both parties finally agreed that, considering the Russians’ passion for the game, a chess set would be the ideal gift. Working day and night, the finely detailed and elaborate pieces were completed the day before Mr. Nixon’s departure. Suddenly Mr. Chorlton, who is president of the company, gasped in horror: How in the world were the pieces to be packaged so that none would get damaged? After much near panic, it was decided to wrap the entire carrying case in Mrs. Chorlton’s favorite bedspread and tie it together with a silk cord.

Presidential Set Artists Proof on chess board view 2Presidential Set Artists Proof on chess board view 1There was at least one full artist’s-proof set created from which the Cybis artists painted the actual gift of state. During the several years following the Moscow Summit presentation, one of these sets went “on tour” nationwide to various galleries and special events. For example, it was on show for five weeks during the summer of 1973 at the R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Louisiana, and a September 1974 issue of the Schenectady Gazette carried this article:

Concert pianist Stanley Hummel and 7-year-old Andre O’Neil [the youngest contestant in the recent New York State Chess Championship Tournament] will play a chess match at 3 pm Sunday at the Albany Institute of History and Art. ….. The chess game will be played next to the Cybis porcelain chess set which is part of the exhibition ‘The American Porcelain Tradition’ which remains at the Institute through Sept 29. The chess set is the original artists’ proofs [sic] which was commissioned by the White House for presentation to the Soviet Union from the United States at the 1972 Moscow Conference.

Smithsonian artists proof chess pieces in case

After two to three years of travel, the set returned to the Cybis studio where it was stored until June 1978, at which time it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. There was a presentation ceremony which was attended by Cybis representatives Frank Bader and Ida Julian. The set has remained at the SI’s National Museum of American History ever since, and has never been in a public exhibition. I am very grateful to the Curator of the Ceramics and Glass Collection for this detailed history of the chess set’s arrival. Photos of each individual chess piece can be seen by doing a search for Cybis on the Museum’s collections-search page. Unlike the Presidential-gift set, this one does not have a mahogany case but, instead, a utilitarian flat case into which the two ‘trays’ of pieces and the chessboard securely fit.

There is an oddity in this set, regarding the Queens. Although all of the other pieces are identical with their opposite-color counterparts in design, the two Queens are different from each other in three respects. The red queen has a thin criss-cross pattern on her gown; she is wearing a necklace; and her merlin has a plume atop its hood. The other queen has none of these things.  Why should the Queens be the only pieces to have a noticeable difference, other than color? [The photos above are courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution‘s National Museum of American History.]

A zoom of the photo of the actual Chess Set given to Brezhnev reveals that the red queen does not have the gown-lines nor a necklace, and the turquoise queen’s merlin does have a plume. The red queen in the Nixon Library set, shown below, likewise has no necklace or gown lines. Thus, the Smithsonian’s red queen is unique in that respect. The question is, why? Was it intentional, or a mistake on the part of one of the painters? Also, was the turquoise queen’s merlin deliberately made without a plume, or did it break off at some point during its travels?

A partial artist’s proof set currently resides in the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. This was originally given by the studio to the White House in 1971 for approval, and was subsequently placed into the Nixon Library which opened in 1990. Unlike the Smithsonian’s, this is not a full set; there is only one representative of each piece, divided between the two colors. The brass plaque on the front of its storage box/display board reads:

Artist’s Proofs prepared for President and Mrs. Nixon’s inspection of the proposed Cybis Porcelain chess set which was then selected and commissioned by The President and Mrs. Nixon on behalf of the People of the United States as a gift to the People of the Soviet Union, May 1972

This Cybis press photo from the 1970s shows Joseph Chorlton holding one of the Queens.

The Commemorative Chess Set

Following the success of the proof set’s exhibit tour, Cybis decided to offer a retail issue called the Commemorative Chess Set in a small limited edition of only 10 sets. Each of these sets came with a chessboard and carrying case.

COMMEMORATIVE CHESS SET by Cybis 1979 blue piecescommemorative-chess-set-by-cybis-1979-green-piecesAlthough utilizing the same molds, they nevertheless differ from the Presidential set in color and in subtle details of decoration. For example, the decorative element around base of the pieces is a quatrefoil rather than a half-sphere; the King holds an orb instead of a flag; the Bishop holds a cross instead of a crozier; and so forth.

The colorways also differ; whereas the Presidential set colors were burgundy/red versus green/teal, the retail edition set colors are ultramarine blue and kelly green. The photos below illustrate the differences between two of the pieces.


kings-comparisonknights-comparisonIt is possible that the knight is removable from his horse, because it’s obvious in the photos above that the knight in blue armor and plume is riding a green-caparisoned horse…which seems a bit odd in view of that fact that in the original OOAK set the horse and its rider matched in colorway.

This artist’s proof/experimental King differs in four ways from both the Presidential and Commemorative versions: (1) different colorway (gold and white); (2) his tunic has a griffon instead of three crowns; (3) he does not hold anything in his right hand; and (4) his crown is decorated in a slightly different way.

Cybis 1979 commemorative chess set King Queen and KnightCan you spot the differences between the pieces shown in this official Cybis catalog photo of the Commemorative Set’s king, queen and knight and the photos that were taken of an actual retail set offered for sale? (Answer at the end of the post.)

The November 20, 1979 issue of the Asbury Park Press reported on a gala event held at Brielle galleries to introduce the Commemorative Chess Set:

Brielle Galleries and [the] Cybis Studio, Trenton, played host on Sunday to about 1,500 guests in celebration of the premiere of the Cybis Commemorative Chess Set. According to gallery president Ira Jacobson, 300 who had responded to his invitation for admission to the event had to be turned down because of the unprecedented number of acceptances. The set was displayed on a central table in the lofty green-and-white tent that had been erected for the occasion. There was plenty of competition for appreciation of its beauty by the visitors, including the Mercer Mardrigal Singers, who performed in two appearances on a stage at one end of the tent. The madrigal singers, whose selections were mostly from ancient Christmas tunes, entertained in authentic medieval costumes. The 14 amateur singers specialize in ancient musical repertory and also have learned period dances which they interpolate in [illegible]. Banners in many designs and colors hung from the roof of the tent. A professional Shakespearean actor carried a boar’s head on a platter, and jugglers, minstrels and magicians appeared among the crowd from time to time, adding their talents to the generally merry mood.

Arthur Bisguier plays 20 matches at Brielle Galleries Cybis Chess Set eventmadrigal singers at Brielle Galleries Cybis Chess Set eventThese photos were taken at the Brielle event. In the upper photo, International Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier plays 20 matches simultaneously with selected guests. The other photo shows the Madrigal Singers.

The December 16, 1981 edition of the Wilton Bulletin newspaper contained a half-page advertisement from Addessi Jewelers in Danbury (Conn.) who was perhaps the largest Cybis retailer in that state:

In recognition of its Fortieth Anniversary the Cybis Studio has undertaken a project of such magnitude that it has allowed the next decade for the work’s completion. Coordinating with the Studio’s anniversary in 1980, the Cybis Commemorative Chess Set will be restricted to an issue of ten whose completion will anticipate the Studio’s Golden Anniversary in 1990. The 32 chessmen are housed in a double tiered chest of hand rubbed mahogany lined with royal blue velvet. The accompanying chess board is composed of alternate squares of mahogany and maple.

The only Cybis Commemorative Chess Set in New England. Number eight in a limited edition of ten. Your move.

Set on display in Danbury store. $30,000 subject to prior sale

A 1982 Cybis price list does not include the set; did it actually sell out in only two years? Their 1986 catalog also contains no mention of it and a 1988 list of currently available sculptures does not include it either.

According to a Cybis employee who was involved in the physical delivery of several of the Commemorative sets, the #1 or #2 set was sold to a collector in New Jersey. Set #3 appeared for sale on eBay in mid-2020 with an asking price of $50,000 … a figure that the seller will certainly not attain, in my opinion. This is because the equally complete and mint-condition set #5, after having been offered for sale for several years by a different seller at $50,000, finally was consigned to a North Carolina auction house in late 2019. With an opening bid of $425, the hammer price for the set was $8000 after 52 bids were placed (many of which were from the same bidders.) This selling price is almost exactly in line with the average current value of limited edition Cybis today, i.e., from 20% to 25% of what the item sold for during the 1980s; see Current Market Values of Cybis for a further discussion of this topic.

The Price Guide To Contemporary Collectibles by Mary Sieber lists “Chess Set” under the Commemorative Heading as having been an issue of 10 but wrongly gives the issue date as 1972 which of course was the creation date of the original Presidential gift of state set(s) upon which the Commemorative Set’s retail issue was based. Thus the correct issue date for the 10-set retail edition is 1979, not 1972.

A recently-discovered newspaper article reveals that there was at least one additional Commemorative Chess Set at the studio that had not been sold at retail. In August 1986, a black tie dinner and show was held to benefit the Garden State Arts Center Foundation. The star of the show was actor/comedian Bill Cosby who was the guest of honor at the dinner along with New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean. During the weeks preceding the dinner, Brielle Galleries mounted an exhibit of a number special Cybis sculptures to be offered at a ‘silent auction’ during the event. Among those pieces was one of the Commemorative sets marked A.P. (Artist’s Proof; although this marking was common practice for such donations, as explained in this Archive post.) This shows that there was either at least one such set in addition to the ten supposedly made for retail sale. It is noteworthy that despite the fact that the retail set’s price had been $30,000 several years previously, the total amount raised by the silent auction of Cybis at this event was only $25,000 including whatever high bid the Chess Set had garnered. It certainly did not bring anywhere near the retail price that Cybis had set for it, even among that extremely well-heeled dinner audience!

The Video/Film(s)

An elusive short film entitled Of Queens and Kings and Other Things was created in 1972. The WorldCat site description reads: “Shows the making of the handcrafted porcelain chess set presented as a gift of the United States by President Nixon to the people of the Soviet Union. Without narration“, gives the format at 16mm and the length as only 8 minutes. Unfortunately the entry also says there is no information about any library having possession of this item. A newspaper clipping mentioned that the film was made by a Princeton NJ company but did not supply the name.

However, another longer film was produced and may also have included information about one of the Chess Sets. A reader of this blog recalls seeing a piece on an Oklahoma PBS channel during 1980 or 1981 (if in 1980 it would have coincided with the studio’s 40th anniversary). It included an interview with actress Zsa Zsa Gabor talking about her Cybis collection and a time-lapse “blooming” sequence during the construction of the intricate Cybis Dahlia shown in the Flowers post. Efforts to locate a copy of this film have so far been unsuccessful, but I continue to hope! If anyone has seen it and can recall any additional details of what it contained – such as whether it mentioned the Chess Set — or where and when it may have aired, please contact me via the form at the bottom of the About the Cybis Archive page.

The Hall of Fame Chess Pieces

Among the various Hall of Fame series replicas that Cybis initiated starting in 1990 were downsized versions of the six chessmen. In a departure from their usual naming style for the HOF pieces, which was to add the Roman numeral II after the original piece’s name (e.g., Persephone II and, later, Persephone III) these were shown simply as King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook and Pawn on the early-2000s Cybis website. Unfortunately there were no photos of any of them and so unless someone happens to own any of these we have no clue as to what they look like. But because they were listed in the “Hall of Fame” website section it’s likely that they are downsized copies of the pieces in the previous limited edition Commemorative Set.

The website did give specifications as to edition size, dimensions, and pricing. Each chess piece was an edition of 1000, each one priced at $375. The Rook (castle) is the smallest, at 5″ high x 1.75″ wide just as it was the shortest of the original set’s molds. The Pawn and the Bishop are both 5.25″ high. The Knight and the Queen are both 5.75″high. The tallest piece is the King at 6″. This height range of between 5″ and 6″ reflects the typical downsizing ratio of approximately 2″ from an original mold, a process explained in more detail in the Upsize Downsize post.

Because these pieces were not offered as a chess set, no chessboard or carrying case was available. There was also no mention of coloring or color options, so if someone did want to assemble a “working set” of 32 pieces they would need to request two differing colorways from Cybis.  I have never seen any of these for sale and frankly am doubtful that any were actually made and/or sold.

If anyone has a photo of any of the Hall of Fame chess pieces and would like to contribute the image(s) to this site, please contact me via the link below.

(Answer to spot-the-differences: The queen’s gown is patterned instead of plain; her merlin’s hood has a blue feather instead of being all gold; the knight’s helmet plume is gold instead of being either blue or green; and the decorative element around the bottom of the base is round instead of a quatrefoil.)

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