Cybis Porcelain ‘Artist’s Proofs’: Are They Always What They Seem?

Sometimes you will see a piece of Cybis porcelain with the letters AP or A.P. near the Cybis signature; those initials stand for ‘artist’s proof.’

This term has long been used in the printmaking industry. It originally meant the first (proofing) run of an edition of prints, which the artist/painter would review and make any changes or corrections necessary until the result was what he or she wanted. The artist would keep these; they were not meant to be sold. Nowadays, A/P prints are simply a marketing device because they are identical in appearance with the standard retail print run.

It is also used in metal casting to refer to the first finished pieces that are retained in order to compare to subsequent castings for consistency in patina, chasing, and so on.

This practice became widely adopted by the art-porcelain industry, especially after limited editions became popular during the 1960s. In the UK such pieces are often called a “painting standard” but both terms mean the same thing: A porcelain sculpture that is the finalized version of the design that was chosen for retail production, painted exactly in the colors that were decided upon, and made available for the studio’s painters to copy as they created the sculptures to be sold in stores. The British term is the more precise of the two when it is applied to porcelain.

The A.P. designation can sometimes mean the same as “one of a kind”…but not always. It depended on what that particular studio’s practices were, in regard to made-for-retail items in a non-standard color or decoration. Cybis does not appear to have done this; if they painted a limited edition piece in a non-standard color at the request of a customer, it was typically not marked AP but instead had only a normal limited-edition sculpture number on it.

The Boleslaw Cybis studio did not put an AP designation on any pieces that were made during the 1940s or 1950s; that practice only began after Marylin Chorlton took over the operation of the studio. In fact, there were not even any limited editions before 1956 which was when the first one (the Holy Child of Prague) was issued.

However, the modern Cybis studio played rather fast and loose with the definition of “artist’s proof” and, as a result, those initials can actually indicate any one of the following seven scenarios other than the piece having been an actual studio painting standard/guide as described above. For example, a Cybis piece that is marked AP could instead be:

A color-decision-stage piece

These are sculptures that were created during the stage of production when decisions were made about what colors and/or decorations to use. Technically, “sample” or “test piece” would be a more accurate term for these.

A ‘just-for-fun’ piece

In other words, a sculpture that a Cybis artist painted or decorated differently on a whim. During the 1960s and 1970s the Cybis artists were encouraged to experiment and be creative, especially with the open (non-limited) edition designs. It’s pretty much impossible to know whether an AP item was one of these or was a color-decision/test piece.
SUZANNE Girl with Kitten by CybisSuzanne with Kitten blue artists proofFor example, the Suzanne in the upper photo is the standard retail colorway but the one in the lower photo (which is marked AP) is slightly different. Her overalls are a solid blue in the retail version but have a definite and very realistic ‘stone-washed’ effect on the AP, and the cat’s bow is entirely different. Was this a decoration-test piece, or was it one that a Cybis artist created that way for herself or to give as a gift to someone? There’s no way to know.

A ‘donation’ sculpture

A common practice at Cybis was to mark a sculpture as AP solely in order to increase its perceived value for charity-auction purposes, for presentation events, or for donation to a museum.

Often these were no different in appearance from the standard retail version because that’s exactly what many were: Sculptures that had gone through the entire retail production process except for having the sculpture number (if a limited edition) added. These pieces were probably already sitting on the shelves waiting for that final pre-shipment step.
Here are three examples of Beatrice. Two of them are normal, numbered retail pieces and the other is marked AP because it was one of many different sculptures that the studio donated to a charity auction during the 1970s. Can you guess which one is the “artist’s proof”? The answer will be at the end of this post.

Pieces destined for museum collections were almost always marked AP. For example, all of the more than 50 pieces that Cybis donated to the Mercer County Community College collection during the 1970s were marked AP. They are exactly like the retail editions. It is probable that any piece that was given as a presentation item or a Gift of State was deliberately marked that way also.

A privately commissioned sculpture design/edition

I am only aware of one of these but it is almost certain that there were others. Normally the general public never knew these special commissions existed. The client might specify that they wanted one or more “artist’s proof” pieces in addition to the desired production run. A prime example of this is the Spirit of Ecstasy that the studio produced on commission for the Rolls-Royce Owners Club; its production run included ten numbered AP-marked pieces. The full story is told in this piece’s separate Archive post.

A sculpture sold at the studio’s showroom after 1990

Some of the most problematic AP pieces are these, because quite a few have a combination of the AP designation plus a retail sculpture number! Sculpture numbers were the final addition to a Cybis piece before it got packed up and sent out the door to the store that had ordered it; thus, if it is a limited-edition piece it should not also have a sculpture number on it because the AP takes the place of what otherwise would have been the sculpture’s assigned number for retail sale.

And yet, after the studio began opening its doors to collectors in late 1990, some of the pieces offered in their showroom had both designations. There was no rhyme or reason why some pieces were dual-marked (AP in addition to having a retail sculpture number) while other pieces were not. For example, a Lady Godiva in an entirely different colorway was dual-marked, whereas a Queen Guinevere – also in a nonstandard colorway – was only marked AP, and a Persephone in the exact same colors and decoration as the retail edition, was dual-marked.  All of these were sold directly from the showroom. The only logical assumption is that an AP was added to some after the fact in order to justify a higher asking price. (Even more problematic are the sculpture numbers that are higher than the declared edition limit, as I discussed here; some but not all were also marked AP.)

A circa-1940s piece that was consigned to the liquidation auction

This is the scenario I referred to earlier, whereby the letters A.P. or AP were added to circa-1940s Cybis pieces that never originally had them. It is possible that this was also done during the 1990s when the studio began offering such “legacy” items for sale in their showroom. In some but not all cases, the studio owners were using AP to mean “one of a kind”, even though they were (one could say) defacing those pieces by adding something that was never originally there.

One could argue that if the letter P on those examples was meant to stand for ‘prototype’ instead of ‘proof,’ the usage is legitimate. But in all preceding Cybis literature, the word prototype was always used by itself, and AP always meant “artist’s proof”. You can’t have it both ways!

Anyway, in 2019 the studio’s owner decided that the remaining legacy (ca. 1940s) items should have an AP added to them…even if there were multiple examples of the same item, such as these papka Baby Sheep that all got marked AP :

Modern signatures and copyright symbols were also added to many 1940s and 1950s pieces that never had them originally; there are no copyright registrations on file for Cybis pieces before March 1965.

A ‘10% Rule’ piece

This is the most problematic of the Cybis studio’s use of the AP designation. To be fair, they did not do this during the 1960s or 1970s (while Marylin Chorlton was alive.) The practice began during the mid-1980s.

The supposed ‘10% Rule’ was a way for the studio to justify breaking their “never to be produced again” advertised policy when it came to completed or closed limited editions. They bent that rule further in 1990 by creating the Hall of Fame replica editions, but at least those are smaller than the originals, often a different color, and were actual advertised retail offerings. But their so-called 10% Rule enabled them to create additional copies of closed limited editions on an individual basis, by claiming that “up to 10% of any declared limited edition may be designated as Artist Proofs.”

Nowhere in any Cybis advertising literature that I have found, does this statement appear. However, a clue does appears in the published Cybis price lists, which normally gave a single number for the size of a given limited edition.  But starting in the mid-1980s, they look like this:
Instead of simply showing 200 as the edition size for the foxes Chatsworth and Sloane it now appears as 200/20* with an asterisk following.
According to the legend on the last page of this 1988 price list, the asterisk indicates the size of the piece’s “Overseas Edition.” And these secondary amounts are always 10% of the declared edition size.

This is where things get dicey. The studio did indeed use this split-edition format once before in its history. This was in connection with – and only with – the North American Indians series which began in 1969. The edition sizes for those pieces were shown in a similar format, with the second number supposedly representing how many were for “Outside the Continental USA” sales. Here is the problem: Cybis never made any such ‘overseas editions.’ They never had any retail sales or retailers outside of the USA, either for the Indians or anything else. This was confirmed to me by the person who was the Controller of the studio for more than twenty years and knew everything about where and how the sculptures were sold. By the late 1980s and 1990s, Cybis was having trouble retaining their domestic retailers and certainly had no chance of selling any overseas.

Although all the price lists after 1988 continue to have this ‘split’ edition size format, the Legend shown in the 1989 and all subsequent price lists do NOT have any explanation of what the secondary number means: There is no asterisk and no claim of an “overseas edition.” I don’t know how many years they did make that claim, because I do not have any price lists between 1983 and 1987; the 1982 list is not ‘split’ but the 1988 one is and so are all lists thereafter.

So, what did that additional 10% secondary edition size actually represent? According to copies of various correspondence shared with me by people who purchased items directly from the studio during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the studio told prospective customers that if they wanted a sculpture that was “not currently in production” (such as a previously closed or completed limited edition) one might nevertheless be made for them because the studio was “allowed to make an additional ten per cent of each edition size as artist’s proofs.” Which is rather silly because as a self-governing business, there was no “being allowed” nonsense; the owner(s) could make up their own rules. The studio was able and willing to create additional copies of closed limited editions and either mark them A.P. (under the “10% Rule”) or supposedly assign them “a sculpture number that had not been previously assigned.” (One wonders how or why there could have been “unassigned” or “unused” sculpture numbers within an edition that had purportedly completely sold out, but that’s another question.)

No other studio seems to have utilized the AP designation quite so widely as Cybis did. Boehm typically reserved that designation for presentation pieces, and Royal Worcester actually did follow the traditional custom of giving the first finished piece of the edition to the artist/sculptor to keep….and so, those pieces really are an “artist’s proof”!

As you can see, the actual meaning of an AP designation on any Cybis sculpture is vague, ambiguous, and often impossible to determine. This is why, if the appearance of the piece corresponds to its normal retail version, it should have no effect on market value. And it should be disregarded when seen on any 1940s or 1950s pieces because the “artist’s proof” designation was not even adopted by the studio until the 1960s.

* Answer to the Beatrice question: The AP-marked one is on the left.

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