The recent liquidation of the Cybis Studio’s holdings has turned up quite a few surprises but perhaps none so much as a small group of stylized pieces that simply don’t fall into any category previously known. For lack of any better appellation, I’m going to call them the Helmet Heads.
This wasn’t actually the first time I’d seen one of these but because the previous one was not signed, but merely “attributed to” Cybis, I’d discounted it. I did keep my notes and photos of it, however, just in case.
The helmet heads utilize two molds, one short and one taller. The taller one was cited as being 11” high and the shorter is probably between 8” and 9”. (An annoying failing of some auction houses who present multi-item lots is the practice of only supplying the height of the tallest of the pieces – which is no help whatsoever.)
This plainest example is a white bisque helmet head with eye slits cut into the mold. For some reason, this made me think of a Cylon helmet (Battlestar Galactica fans will get the reference) even though it’s really nothing like it except for the color. I have absolutely no idea what the artist (whoever it was) was trying to represent with this. It certainly does not match any 1940s or later pieces that have come to light thus far, and it appears in no known Cybis literature. It is 11” high and a bit more than 6” wide at the base.
Here’s the same helmet head in a brown crackle glaze finish, and with no eye slits. The back view appears to show two small indentations that aren’t apparent in the bisque version.
This is the example that I discovered for sale several years ago. This version is a white crackle glaze helmet head. The side-angle view is surprising because it shows a tapered form not apparent from the direct front- and back-facing photos.
The only marks on this piece are the incised words Side No Sponge. These photos are from a June 2013 auction at Kamelot, at which it sold for $100 (hammer price.) It was described there as an “unmarked Cybis prototype…circa 1960.” In the same sale were several verifiably 1940s pieces; I have no idea where the 1960 age claim came from. In September 2014 this same piece showed up at an auction house in Poland described as “Boleslaw Cybis (1895-1957) prototype, ceramic” and sold for 10,000 PLN (Polish Zloty) which at that time equaled about $2900. However, the same auction house offered it yet again in April 2017 at which time it supposedly sold for 11,000 PLN (about $2700 in USD.) As a point of comparison, the first two helmet heads, plus a third shown below, brought a hammer price of only $200 at the 2019 sale in Pennsylvania.
The third piece in the 2019 lot was this short green crackle glaze helmet head. Obviously, we’re using a bit of creative license in calling this a “head” or “bust” but given the similar pieces that’s as good a guess as any as to what it was intended to be. A good guess for height is probably between 8” and 9” with a maximum width of perhaps two-thirds of that. I suspect, but cannot be sure from the photo, that those small round black “dots” on part of the top may be holes caused by firing bubbles (a defect) because this certainly wasn’t intended as a salt shaker! This time no guess as to age was even ventured by the auction house.
So what is the probable age of these pieces? The photo of their undersides offers no clue except for a faded red-penciled 70 (or 170) on the short green one. No help there.
Were These Pieces Made by Cybis??
In my opinion, only one of the helmet-head pieces shown above may have been made at the Cybis studio. The others probably were not. Here are my reasons for this assessment.
- The most important factor is that, unlike the vast majority — and probably even all — of the other pieces in the 2019 liquidation auctions, a Cybis signature was NOT added to any of these. Frankly, this is a huge red flag because as much as it irks me to know that modern marks were added to Cybis pieces that were created during the 1940s, at least that shows the studio’s management knew that those pieces were undoubtedly products of the Cybis studio. The fact that nobody never added any marks to these (or to the example first sold in 2013) probably indicates that the studio either knew that these are not Cybis items or had serious doubt about their origin.
- Another red flag is the crackle finish, which I have never seen on any Cybis studio product, regardless of decade or branding (either Cybis or Cordey.) One would think that at some time, somehow, on some type of other ‘test’ piece during their 50 years of existence they would have used this – because clearly it did “work” as far as a successful appearance.
- An incised production instruction (“Side No Sponge”) has never been found on a Cybis or Cordey piece, and never in this handwriting style. Production instructions (such as Cypia during the 1950s) or the design/mold number were done in pencil because they were supposed to be removed as part of the final finishing steps. They were not intended to be permanent, as this is.
- Yet another argument for ‘not-Cybis’ is the fact that Marylin Chorlton regularly brought all sorts of “found” items from garage and tag sales to the studio, ranging from bronzes (such as the one that the large Buffalo of the 1970s was cast from, or several large bronze peacocks that nothing was ever done with) to wood sculptures to miscellaneous china and porcelain figures from other sources. The studio shelves were loaded with such items. Thus, it’s very possible that the three crackle heads were among such “Marylin pickups” and the white bisque version is a test casting that was produced from one of those. Look again at the photo of the undersides and notice how clean the white bisque one is compared to the crackle finish ones, and how smooth and even the central opening is – an indication that the white bisque one is newer than the others.
The auctioneer attribution of a 1960 creation date to the 2013 helmet head example may have been a guess based on the fact that the only truly “modern style” pieces known to be Cybis are the Ispanky ones from 1960. However, as far as I know, Ispanky never worked in any kind of a crackle finish either while he was at Cybis or in his own later studio. He did some fairly odd-looking things occasionally, but not to this extent! Thus, if I had to bet money on whether any of the crackle finish helmet heads were created at the Cybis studio I would place my chips firmly down on the square marked “No.” I do think it possible that the white bisque one may have been a test casting (by someone in the Cybis mold shop) that nothing further was ever done with, and because of guilt-by-association with the non-Cybis originals, that casting did not receive any official markings.
The Brick Man Head
As a point of comparison, here is another oddly-designed bust that the studio nevertheless did “bless” with the addition of their official markings.
This white bisque male bust in a brick motif is one that I nicknamed ‘Brickman’ pretty much at first glance several years ago. Like the helmet heads, he doesn’t exactly match any documented Cybis pieces but, unlike them, he has several points in favor of authenticity.
The most obvious proof is that he bears typical Cybis studio marks: the name, a copyright symbol, and a somewhat-smudged A.P. It’s not known when these were added but he is definitely a Cybis, and the only remaining question involves when the piece was made.
The open top of his head corresponds to several known and documented Cybis pieces from the 1940s, as shown in this post. So does his partially-cut-open mouth. That’s two points in favor of the 1940s, although the brick motif doesn’t quite jive with the soft, naturalistic pieces that characterize most Cybis pieces of that decade. While on the other hand….
Compare the construction of Brickman with The Prophet, which was designed by Laszlo Ispanky and released by Cybis as a limited edition in 1960 (and by Ispanky himself as a bronze.) Here we have an undeniably strong similarity and while one can argue endlessly about which may be an adaptation of the earlier piece (recalling that Boleslaw Cybis died in 1957 while Ispanky didn’t join the studio as Art Director until 1960) they are both unquestionably the product of the Cybis studio. Even the sizes are comparable: Brickman is 16” high with his flat-top open head and no base, and The Prophet is just about 20” high including hair and a two-inch-thick wood base that is not visible above but can be seen in the Unusual 1960s post.
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