One of my research forays earlier this year made me aware of an article published by a Florida newspaper regarding a circa-1960s Cybis sculpture: their Bull ‘God of the Thunderbolt.’ On close examination, however, the content turns out to be what used to be called a ‘fish story’ – or, in today’s parlance, “fake news.”
The article, shown below, appeared in the Miami Herald on December 7, 1965. It claims that President Lyndon B. Johnson bought 97 of the retail issue of 100 bulls to present “as diplomatic gifts to foreign heads of state, and that the remaining three were sent to franchised [Cybis] dealers.” The article also claimed that the original sculpture name was changed to “Presentation Bull” after Johnson made the alleged purchases. The only cited source was the “owner of a local import shop” who had sold one of the Cybis bulls to a customer for more than $1000.
It’s easy to debunk this story by simply googling “Cybis bull” on the major auction compilation sites and finding that 13 of these were offered and/or sold on such venues just within the past few years. These include sculpture numbers 32, 45, 78, 84, 87, and 99, plus seven whose sculpture number was not shown or cited and two marked A.P (one of which came out of the studio’s 2019 liquidation sale and has special gold decorations.) No doubt there have been other examples that have changed hands over the years in offline situations! Mr. Brotherton, purchaser of the Bull mentioned in the article, died in 2002; it’s not known what became of that sculpture.
Had any POTUS’s administration ever purchased almost an entire retail edition, or even 100 pieces marked A.P. (artist proof), that fact would surely have been noted in marketing press releases by the Cybis studio itself – but the Miami Herald article is the only such representation that seems to have been published. Notice that the writer of the article, identified in the byline as Joel Gaston, does not say that Conley’s extraordinary claim originated with, or was verified by, the Cybis studio. This would have been easy for him to do by making a phone call…but the answer would have spoiled an easy local-interest story.
Let’s poke a few more holes in this Swiss-cheese example of ‘reporting’ by checking a few actual Cybis publications. Bull ‘God of the Thunderbolt’ was released by the studio in 1960 as a limited edition of 100, priced at $150. At that time, the president of the United States was Dwight Eisenhower, who in 1961 was succeeded by John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963. The Spring 1963 Cybis price list includes “Bull” as a currently-available limited edition priced at $150, showing that the studio had already been offering and selling the piece to the public for three years at that point. Even if Johnson had requested 97 of them upon his inauguration as Vice President in 1961, the edition would have been designated as “completed” on the studio’s 1961 or 1962 price lists, because the studio would have immediately ceased taking orders for it. But clearly that is not the case. According to the Appendix in the studio’s 1978 catalog, the edition of 100 was not completed until 1965 and with a final retail price of $200. If Mr. Brotherton indeed paid $1000-plus for the piece in 1965, I’d say he got taken for a ride!
Oh, and about that “name change”? There wasn’t any, at least not on the Cybis studio’s part. The 1971 museum exhibit catalog Cybis in Retrospect, as well as the Appendix in the 1978 and 1979 Cybis catalogs, all illustrate and title the piece as Bull ‘God of the Thunderbolt’. It is true that their price lists all through the 1960s and 1970s list it as simply Bull but that may have been for reasons of space. It certainly was never shown in any Cybis literature as “Presentation Bull.”
It is true that this piece (one piece!) was given by Johnson to President Ordaz of Mexico in 1964. This is documented in my post about Cybis Gifts of State, and is the only such mention of this piece actually being presented to anyone by a POTUS administration. A dozen years later, when incoming president Jimmy Carter’s aides examined the contents of the State Department’s Protocol Unit warehouse, they discovered one of these Bulls (again, apparently just one) among the un-gifted leftovers from past administrations. This is related in First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s memoir, First Lady from The Plains. Had the Johnson administration actually acquired 97 of the Cybis bulls, you would think that the subsequent Nixon and/or Ford administrations would have made use of at least some of them – and, if not, there would have been an entire ‘herd’ of them remaining in the Protocol Unit’s warehouse! It’s more likely that the actual quantity that Johnson’s State Department received from the Cybis studio was either one, two, or – at most – three.
There’s another wrinkle: Cybis sculptures that were mounted on a wood base and supplied to the State Department to be used as gifts normally had this small Presidential Seal medallion affixed to the base (and were typically marked A.P. instead of having a retail-edition sculpture number.)
To those who might argue that the Bulls appearing on eBay and in auction sales nowadays could somehow have come from the State Department’s holdings or from people who had received them from Lyndon Johnson as gifts, I ask: If so, what happened to the medallion? None of those bases had one, nor any indication that a medallion was ever there.
Mr. Gaston also states in his article’s final line that “The bulls were made by Boleslaw Cybis of Trenton.” This too is incorrect, because the Bull was definitely designed by Laszlo Ispanky during his association with the Cybis studio in the early 1960s. Boleslaw Cybis had died in 1957.
In 2003 a Florida auction house took a Bull on consignment and apparently found the 1965 newspaper article while researching it. As a result, they listed it as “Cybis Pocelain [sic] Presentation Bull”, described it as “1 of 100 made” and claimed that President Johnson “bought all the bulls to give as gifts.” Because only a single photo was in the online listing, it’s unclear whether “1 of 100” was intended to mean “one of 100” or “sculpture #1 of 100”. In any case, the overall claim is apocryphal.
Or, in more succinct terms: It was just a lot of bull ! 😊
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