Let’s play Twenty Questions (plus one extra for good luck) with a potpourri of Q and A about Cybis porcelains. 🙂
(Where a sculpture is mentioned in the answer, it is linked to the page where a photo of it appears.)
How do you pronounce CYBIS?
It is pronounced see-biss. There is a software company by the same name but their name is pronounced sigh-biss, as in “cyber.”
Will sunlight fade the colors of a Cybis porcelain?
No, the colors will not fade. The firing process makes the paint pigments UV-colorfast, unlike the dyes in fabric, oil or watercolor art, or wall paint pigments which do react to UV exposure. Cybis colors will also not change via oxidation, as the other items’ colors do.
Can a very hot or very cold environment damage my Cybis?
A consistently hot or cold room will not cause damage but a sudden and significant change in temperature (“thermal shock”) can indeed do so. This is true of any ceramic and of many other materials as well. Extreme temperature changes, such as bringing an item that was stored or shipped in very cold conditions directly into a hot room (or vice versa) can cause ceramics to crack, and can cause or exacerbate ‘crazing’ on the surface of glazed pieces.
That said, also keep in mind that some decorative elements were only glued, rather than fired, in place; examples are the swords held by King Arthur and Sir Henry. The glue that was originally applied decades ago has inevitably dried somewhat over time, and if the piece is stored in a hot attic or cold garage the ongoing extreme ambient temperature will accelerate the glue’s deterioration and diminish its holding power. So although consistent high or low temperatures won’t damage the porcelain itself, it can definitely affect any glue that may have been used on the piece. The good news is that there aren’t that many pieces with glued-on elements.
I bought a Cybis at a tag sale and it’s really grimy. What can I clean it with?
Although a mild detergent such as dishwashing liquid (especially the natural ones like Seventh Generation) is what’s usually recommended, it may surprise you to learn that even something strong like Formula 409 can be used. The important thing is to never use anything abrasive because although colorfast, the pigments are only fired onto the top layer of porcelain – so if you remove the actual surface layer, the paint that is now part of that layer will be removed as well. The safest way to remove grime is to keep spraying the dirty piece with the liquid cleaner, allowing the dirt to literally drip away, and then gently pour lukewarm clean water over it (do not hold it under the faucet!) to rinse. You will probably need to repeat this several times in order to “wash” the dirt out of every little nook and cranny. The only caution against using the more powerful spray cleaners is if the piece has a glued-on element, because you don’t want the chemicals to possibly soften the glue; on those it’s better to use a mild detergent instead, and do try to keep it away from the glue juncture if at all possible.
There is one big exception to the washability rule, and that is the very rare instance of a piece being a “test sample” that was never fired. These are the pieces that were made in the very beginning when color schemes were decided upon. They were painted with watercolor paints – so that the colors could be easily altered – and were never fired. Test pieces should never be washed or exposed to any liquid, because the watercolor paint will come off. However, such pieces are unlikely to be seen outside of the personal collection of someone who once worked at the studio – if they were kept by the studio at all, rather than destroyed after they’d served their purpose.
I have a Cybis that is mounted on a wood base and the base is damaged. Can I remove or replace the base, and how much will it reduce the value if I do?
The busts and other pieces that were permanently mounted onto a wood base are attached with a toggle bolt, accessible via a hole in the underside of the base which was then covered with glued-on felt. After removing the felt and carefully loosening the toggle bolt, you should be able to remove the piece. Replacement of the base is only practical for the busts atop simple square bases and even then you would need to find one with the appropriate size hole.
Pieces such as some of the the North American Indians have custom bases with recesses designed to fit the bottom part of the porcelan mold (and vice versa) like a puzzle. Unless you are (or know) a woodworker you will not be able to replace one of those bases. A entirely missing base, especially one of the ‘custom’ ones, should reduce the value of a limited edition although in this market it’s hard to say how much.
I broke my Cybis! Where can I get it professionally repaired? Can I try to fix it myself, and if so, how?
The best bet for professional repairs is to inquire at an established brick-and-mortar antique shop (not a consignment shop or multi-dealer gallery) who can refer to you a restorer specializing in antique porcelain. Larger cities are the most likely place to find these. If you are on the East Coast, try the Weston Gallery in New Jersey; the founder, Stephen Weston, has wide experience with porcelain and the gallery is still family-owned.
The proper way to repair a broken Cybis (or Boehm or whatever) is by using liquid porcelain “slip” but depending on the location and extent of the breakage, sometimes Superglue works just as well. Much depends on how much loss of material there is at the breakpoint; a clean break is far more Superglue-friendly than one which has “powdered.” The decision to ‘go pro’ versus attempting a DIY repair will depend on how valuable the piece is to you versus the cost of a professional repair job (and also how steady your hands are.)
The piece I have isn’t pictured on your site or in any of the catalogs. Does that mean it’s a fake?
Not necessarily. It could have been be a part of a special event “run” for a retail gallery event, or part of a special commission done for a company, charitable organization, or local church. Also, many more 1950s pieces were made than were ever listed or pictured in any Cybis literature, and as they appear for sale nowadays online I continue to add those to the Archive. If you contact me via the form at the bottom of the About the Archive page, I will respond via email to which you can then send photos of your piece. I will try my best to identify your Mystery Cybis for you. 🙂
Which museums display Cybis where I can see some other examples in person?
That’s a good question! Although the 1978 and 1979 catalogs include a page titled “Cybis Porcelains are in the Following Collections” that lists more than 100 locations worldwide (about 2/3 of which are museums of some sort) that was 40 years ago. There’s no way to know which (if any) of these locations still have any Cybis on display, let alone still own them; museums regularly de-accession their stock to make room for new additions. I plan to add a future post to the Archive, listing all of the locations that in the past had or displayed any Cybis, with the caveat that one would need to check with the entity to inquire if they are still there.
What does the year on my Cybis piece refer to?
The year (if any) appearing on a Cybis piece is almost always the year of its copyright registration. It does not indicate the sculpture’s retail issue year (although sometimes they do happen to coincide) nor the year that the piece was made (ditto.) This post explains how and why a year appears on some Cybis pieces, and also shows the few exceptions to the “copyright-year rule.”
Does the glaze on the old 1950s Cybis and Cordey pieces contain lead? If so, is it a health hazard?
The short answer is that yes, the glaze on the “oldies” probably does contain some percentage of lead. Many antique and vintage ceramic glazes used lead oxide as an ingredient, which is why many people keep grandma’s old teacups only for display rather than drinking tea from them. But a glazed porcelain figurine, including any from Cybis, poses no health risk – I’m assuming that you’ve taught your toddler not to put that 1950s figure of Saint Patrick into his mouth, right? That said, I would not use any of the 1940s Cybis spatterware and other tableware for actual food service. Better safe than sorry.
How can I be sure a piece I am considering purchasing is MINT or has not been damaged and repaired?
The gold standard is to check it with a blacklight in a dark environment. Obviously that’s not possible if you’re not buying “in person” or if the seller balks at the idea (in which case you should walk away.) A careful examination of all available photographs – ask for more to be taken, especially closeups of particularly fragile areas like hands, flowers and leaves – can go a long way. Look for any irregularities or inconsistencies in the surface. Compare their photos of the piece with as many others as you can find online. Even so, make sure you understand the seller’s return policy before buying. Ask him “If I find any evidence of damage or repairs after examining this under a blacklight, will you accept a return?” and make sure you keep their email reply if they say Yes.
I have a piece of old Cybis; does that mean it was designed or made by Boleslaw Cybis himself?
How old is “old”? If it’s from the 1940s the answer is “quite possibly.” If it’s from the 1950s and is marked Cybis, the answer is “probably not.” If it’s from the 1960s or later, the answer is “definitely not.”
Be aware that in the 1990s the Cybis studio began selling some one-of-a-kind late 1930s/early 1940s pieces that were indeed designed and made by Boleslaw and/or Marja Cybis. Unfortunately the studio added “modern markings” in paint to these pieces, I guess in an effort to establish authenticity. The typical addition was the copyright symbol and the letter AP – in some cases the Cybis signature was added as well, if it wasn’t originally there. This gave rise to much confusion when I first saw these being resold by a Pennsylvania auction house several years ago, because during the 1940s the AP and the copyright symbol were NEVER used. At first I assumed the pieces were 1960s or later reproductions of the originals (a la the Hall of Fame replicas) but later learned that the 1990s studio had newly-marked the original legacy pieces before offering them for sale.
Was Boleslaw Cybis related to the Polish painter Jan Cybis?
No; although they were roughly the same age (Jan was born in 1897 in Poland, Boleslaw in 1895 in Lithuania) they were from different families.
Why didn’t Cybis put the sculpture’s name on their pieces? Their competition (Boehm, Ispanky, Royal Worcester, etc) did, and it makes identification much easier!
It appears to have been purely an arbitrary decision on the part of Boleslaw Cybis to not physically identify any of their Cordey or Cybis pieces by name and that tradition was continued after the Chorltons took over the studio. There’s also a cost factor: Those sculpture names you see on those other brands were all applied as decals before firing – just like the studio logo, the “edition of (however many)”, and other information on their undersides. The decal’s backing burns away in the firing. But it cost money to have those decals printed up, especially for a quantity of only a few hundred (a sculpture name) rather than several thousand (studio name/logo.) So Cybis saved money by using only impression-stamps and handpainted signatures and numbers, thereby avoiding the decal-expense completely. Yes they could have handwritten the sculpture name as well (like the Kazmar studio did) but chose not to. Cybis appears to have been one of only two American studios that never used backstamp decals in any form whatsoever, the other being Kazmar.
Some pieces of Cybis have a sculpture number but also AP meaning artist proof. Shouldn’t it be one or the other?
Theoretically yes, it should be either one or the other. A sculpture number indicates a piece that was destined for retail sale, which normally an artist proof is not. However, Cybis did add the letters AP to modern pieces that were not originally artist proofs, in order to boost the piece’s perceived value and price. In fact I have two such “numbered AP” pieces myself. Both look exactly like the retail limited edition and are numbered, but also are marked AP. This is one of the two circa-1990s practices that I wish the studio had never engaged in (the other being the Hall of Fame series.)
Your ‘All at Sea’ post mentions that Cybis never made any fish sculptures. Are there other creatures that they never made?
They made no marsupials and nothing in the reptile family despite the fact that Boehm made several lizards as co-equal design elements of flower sculptures. They made none of the “big cats” such as lions, tigers, etc; all of the Cybis felines are domestic. Also, there is no Cybis skunk! There is only one insect: the fanciful and utterly unrealistic ladybug Duchess of Seven Rosettes, although the fairy Ariel does ride upon the back of an equally fanciful grasshopper.
Why didn’t Cybis make sculptures of any “real people” other than Katharine Hepburn and Pope John Paul II? How did they choose their subject matter?
Making representations of real people requires legal procedures and permissions that the studio wasn’t willing to undertake except in those two cases (I’m assuming that the Vatican did give permission for the Pope busts; not sure about Kate as Eleanor of Aquitaine.)
Subject matter choice, ah well, thereby hangs a tale. While Marylin Chorlton ran the studio (1957-1977) many subject inspirations came from her, such as the Yankee Doodle Dandy profiled in the Nursery Rhymes post. But just as often they came from the sculptor/designers themselves who would toss ideas around for fun (“Hey, why don’t we do a…”) and then present them to Marylin either as an idea or a rough model. In those days the studio was a very collaborative place. But with the arrival of the “new management crew” to run the show after Marylin’s death, this all changed. By the mid-1980s the marketing department was dictating much of what the studio would produce, based on personal preference or on conversations with retailers as well as an eye to widening the profit margin. This is why you often see such a marked difference in design and quality between the Golden Age (1960s and 1970s) pieces and the ones produced from the mid 1980s onward.
Sometimes sellers say “no original box”; would the piece be worth more nowadays if it still had its box? What did the Cybis boxes look like?
With one exception, the boxes that Cybis used were generic and, except for the Cybis name and logo stamped on them, were unremarkable. They were simply white cardboard with gold-colored printing as shown below.
The sculpture name and design number was simply written on the box with a pen. The second photo shows a Cybis box from Brielle Galleries’ stock. The 6088 represents the Cybis design number (all the animal pieces began with 6) although I have no idea what “Code S-2” meant.
The exception to the generic boxes are the ones that were supplied with the annual Angel Ornaments for the four years they were made (1985-1988). The inside of the fabric-lined gold box was contoured to cradle the ornament. As far as I know, these were the only “custom” boxes that Cybis provided.
Why are Cybis and Boehm figurines selling for so much less today than they were when they were originally sold? I thought art was supposed to be a good investment!
The death of the art porcelain market is a complex subject and one that I will be writing about early next year (2018) on my personal blog site, The Chatsworth Lady. I’m currently writing a series of profiles of the “lost” porcelain studios from the 1970s and 80s, and when that series is completed I’ll be examining in detail the circumstances of what happened to the market. When that is posted I’ll definitely add a link here.
Great-aunt Tilly died and left us a big houseful of stuff including a collection of Cybis. If I send you a list and pictures, can you furnish an appraisal for estate or insurance purposes?
Because I am not a certified appraiser, a probate court or insurance company would not accept my estimate of current market value even though the basic method (searching for documented recent sales of the same or a sufficiently comparable item) used is identical. Depending on what your estate attorney says is standard for your local court system, the lookback period for “recent sales” can range from only six months to as much as two years. Also be aware that even the various types of professional appraisals differ; the IRS and state courts will not accept an appraisal that was done for insurance purposes, for example.
Has Cybis stopped making porcelains and if so, when? What was the very last piece they issued?
The studio let its entire full-time production staff go at the end of 1989 and closed for several months. During the 1990s individual artists and artisans were brought in on a part-time, on-call basis for a day or two when needed, and paid in cash. With the exception of master moldmaker Jules Olewa who was called in several times during the 1990s, none of the “callbacks” were any of their veteran 1970s and 1980s artists. Some of the pieces released in the 1990s had actually been designed during the 1980s. One rumor has it that the kilns were shut down permanently in 2005, though I haven’t been able to confirm this. But by 2010 they definitely had ceased all active production and were offering only their existing stock for sale.
The final new retail issue appears to have been the Carousel Reindeer, because the last time the Cybis website was updated (December 2008) this was described as being “our newest introduction.” However, that could also have been leftover text from a previous year because the site was only updated in a piecemeal fashion during the 2000s. So in terms of “best guess” for their final retail introduction the Reindeer is probably it. Having never seen one offered for sale, I have no idea what the copyright year on it might be.
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