Repairing Broken Cybis Porcelain: The Good, the Bad, and the Realistic

A fair percentage of the messages I receive through this website begin with ‘I have a damaged Cybis, how can I get it repaired?’ Given the fragile nature of these pieces and the vicissitudes of time, this is not surprising.

Before I get into the good, bad, and realistic aspects of my answer to these inquiries, I do need to clarify that this (The Cybis Archive) is not the Cybis studio, nor do I have the ability to repair such items myself. I have been told by artists who were there during the 1960s and 1970s that it was possible for a collector (via their retailer) to have a damaged piece repaired by the studio itself. I am sure the odds favored the high-volume collectors, however!

The studio eventually stopped offering this opportunity and, in the 1980s, furnished their retailers with a list such as this one:

The list includes 13 states (California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia) and lists 22 professional porcelain repair services. I checked to see if any of them still exist today, two decades later. Only three of them remain, and they are noted in the list below; two of them are in the same city. By the way, there is no such word as “restorationist” in this context, so don’t bother Googling for one; the only definition of this word refers to an adherent to a specific type of religious dogma.

The Good News

The good news is that, if given to someone having the right expertise, any damage can be addressed. If fingers are broken off but still available, they can be re-attached (but will probably still be detectable to sharp eyes, unless the restorer is very good); if several fingers are lost, the restorer may wish to create an entirely new hand.

It’s always best if the owner still has the broken pieces, and also can supply a number of photos of how a mint-condition piece looks, preferably taken from multiple angles. Luckily, photos of almost all post-1960 Cybis pieces can usually be found in plenty via Google as well as here on the Archive.

Things get tricky when a restorer is faced with a piece that has no reference photo, such as this Connoisseur of Malvern basket. Almost all of the incredibly fragile flowers are there but have become disconnected from each other and from the equally fragile porcelain basket, and some are broken. Sadly, I was unable to find any photo of an intact Springtime Harvest basket that would show how the flowers are supposed to be placed, and so the restorer will need to use her best guess and ‘wing it’ if the basket’s owner decides to go ahead. (Many thanks to the Avery Gallery for this photo!)

The Bad News

The bad news is twofold: (1) there are far, far fewer people doing this kind of restoration work nowadays, and (2) the cost of a repair/restoration is often shockingly expensive. In most cases, even with limited editions that originally cost Big Bucks when first purchased, the cost of repair will exceed the current market value of the sculpture.

This presents a dilemma for someone who originally paid full price for it and is now faced with a decision: To replace the entire sculpture with a different, but mint-condition, example that is (or may eventually appear) for sale online? Or to spend more than that amount in order to repair the piece they originally bought?

The gamble, when it comes to restoration, is whether or not the owner will be happy with the result. Of course, it shouldn’t be a “gamble” but with the dearth of repair options available nowadays, it may come down to using a single source or doing nothing.

I should mention here that not every piece of Cybis porcelain came out of the kiln exactly the way it was supposed to, and their advertised claim that ‘all imperfect pieces are destroyed’ was not always true. And sometimes, well, accidents happened in the workroom. If the mishap could be acceptably fixed before the piece went out the door, it was. Often that fix involved Superglue which was originally known commercially as Eastman 910 and widely used in the art porcelain industry since the 1950s. This is the glue that was used to create flowers out of individually molded petals, to attach leaves to stems, and to attach porcelain components to metal ones such as bronze (which Cybis did not use but several other studios did.) This glue is still sold today as Permabond™ 910 for bonding metal surfaces in particular. It, as well as other ‘superglue’ products, is a cyanoacrylate adhesive. These work quickly upon exposure to air – which also means that once opened, a tube has a fairly short shelf life after being unsealed. (This is why the tube of Gorilla Glue that you bought six months ago, and used only once, is now probably kaput.)

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Cybis studio had a dedicated repair person on staff. His name was Ed Lettieri, and he was recognized as an absolute wizard at the ‘cold patch’ repair method. Even the artists were amazed; when Ed fixed something, it was almost impossible to detect even when one knew exactly where the problem area was. When he left the studio, he was not replaced and so the in-house artisans took over the repair work during the 1980s, after which the studio eventually stopped doing any repair work at all.

Can you repair a broken piece of Cybis yourself with a ‘superglue’ if it’s a clean break and you have all the pieces? Yes, you can probably get them reattached but what will you do to disguise the line where they join?  Here the skill of a restorer is often needed, and it’s also where many repairs (either DIY or pro) can go bad. Fingers are always problematic, especially if – in the original mold – they were separated from each other, as in the graceful hands of pieces designed by Ispanky or Harry Burger. It’s extremely difficult to repair or replace those without those spaces being filled in, and/or the new fingers looking ‘fat’ compared to the others.

If a customer is less than happy with the results of a professional repair, their reaction is going to be either “Well, it’s not what I hoped but at least it looks better than it did before”, or “For this much money, I expect it to look just like it did originally.” So, it’s best to be clear, before any work is performed, about what happens (or doesn’t) in the event of such an outcome.

The Realistic News

If the only problem with a piece of Cybis is that an element which was originally glued in place has become detached, it can make perfect sense to do the repair yourself with Superglue, Gorilla Glue, or a similar cyanoacrylic adhesive. Examples of such elements, which may have originally been attached with either glue or porcelain slip, include King Arthur’s sword, Sir Henry’s sword or shield, the hunting bow in Hiawatha or Cree ‘Magic Boy’, and Alice in Wonderland’s book which sits on her lap.  Sometimes a hat, or an element attached to the top of a base, might snap off cleanly…such as the basket of baby chicks next to Little Jamie 

Elements that were originally in the figure’s hand(s) are trickier because the odds are about 50/50 that the detachment resulted in finger breakage. For example, the goblet held by Richard the Lionheart or Isolde, Wendy’s doll, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s book, Desdemona’s handkerchief, or the mirror held by both Camille and Daddy’s Little Girl. And let’s not forget Madame Butterfly’s parasol!

If you are lucky enough to have a detached element with no damage to either it or the place it was attached to, please please take some time to look at as many photos of an undamaged piece as you can, to see exactly where the element is supposed to go, before you open that glue tube. As my mom used to say, if you’re going to do something, do it right.

For any other kind of repair, the following inconvenient truth applies:

The cost of the repair is probably going to be as much as, or more than, the current market value of the piece. Of course, if the sculpture has a sentimental value for you, this may not matter; in that case the only issue is finding someone who will do an excellent job repairing it. But for the rest of us, the cost/benefit ratio is very relevant.

For open (non-limited) edition pieces that currently sell for less than $100 on eBay, it clearly makes more sense to find a replacement piece than to have the broken one repaired. This may even apply to pieces that currently bring up to $200, depending on the type and extent of the damage.

Which brings me to a brief digression about damaged porcelain ‘lace’, such as found on collars (Portia, Guinevere, Jane Eyre, Scarlett, Columbine, etc.), cuffs (Ophelia, Abigail Adams, Good Queen Anne, Columbine again, etc.) and dress trims (I’m looking at you, Camille) as well as on many Cordey figures. Lace is arguably the most difficult of repairs, and my only suggestion for that kind of damage is given in the final section.

As for damaged limited editions, the caveat of repair cost>market value applies in most cases. This is especially painful for those who bought the now-broken piece at its original Cybis retail price any time after the mid-1960s. For example, Madame Butterfly sold for $2875 at introduction in 1984. She has many areas of potential breakage in addition to detachment of her parasol: The flowers and ornament in her hair, the flowers and leaves atop the parasol, her fingers, and the long ribbons on the parasol and flowing down her back behind her shoulders. An undamaged example sold for $499.50 in September 2021 on eBay; it’s likely that the repair of any one of the potential damages mentioned would cost close to that. The discrepancy is even wider if the owner of a damaged Madame Butterfly had bought her only four years later, because in 1988 her retail price was $3495! The reality today is not that they would be spending $500 to restore a $3000 item; they would actually be spending $500 to repair a $500 item, and the odds that the repaired piece would be able to sell for $1000 are pretty low. The chance of it ever selling for $3375 or $3995, except to a mythical buyer who has far more money than brain cells, is so low that one might as well call it impossible. The math clearly shows that, in the absence of an emotional attachment to that specific sculpture, a repair would make zero economic sense.

Of course, there are intangibles. The wildcard in trying to compute a total-cost/value ratio for repairing one of the human figures is the individuality of the facial expressions, which was the result of how each was painted. For example, we bought our Ophelia several years after her edition was completed but there was still stock here and there at a few retailers. Because she was then officially “off the Cybis lists”, those stores could set their own price for her, and did. We ended up paying more than $1000 for ours but that was because I saw and rejected at least a half dozen over more than a year because I didn’t 100% love how the face was painted (yes, I was a royal pain in the derriere when it came to that.) But when I finally saw the Right One, I knew it instantly. She is one of the few pieces that I have kept, and you can see her in the Shakespeare post. I know that if she ever did become damaged (horrors!) I would never opt to replace her with another but would either have her repaired (if I could afford to) or leave her as is (because I don’t ever intend to sell her.) So, I totally get why the option of cavalierly replacing a broken Cybis with another one might not be a palatable choice for some.

On the other hand, if a person has picked up a damaged Cybis limited edition for the proverbial song at a local garage sale (does that even happen anymore, given the ability to identify almost anything at a moment’s notice via the internet??) and is willing to spend additional cash to have it “look right”, a pro repair may certainly be an option. The same goes for a piece arriving by way of an inheritance. But please, if you do intend to sell it after repair, be honest and disclose what was done. Even with market values so depressed nowadays, a potential buyer has the right to know anything that might affect their decision to buy or not buy at a given price point. I say this as one who has been on both sides of the buyer/seller fence. A ‘mint condition’ piece and a ‘restored’ (even professionally restored) piece is not the same thing. The distinction doesn’t matter nearly as much at today’s prices as it did during the art porcelain boom years, but honesty and integrity still do. Or so I hope.

There are multiple ways to determine the average current market value of a Cybis piece. First, I suggest you read my post on that subject. Then go to eBay and search the Sold listings for that figure, sorted by Ended Recently although given their six-month limit on lookbacks, this is not as useful as it sounds. (But it’s better than Etsy which doesn’t show sold data at all.) When you look at the current eBay listings for that item, especially if none showed up in Sold, please keep in mind that many are ‘aspirational’ and don’t forget to notice the original listing date…especially for the highest priced ones. You may find that it’s actually been on the market for a year or more, which is a clear indication that the market won’t support what the seller is asking. Don’t factor that ‘value’ into any economic decision of whether or not a professional repair is worth doing.

Also do a search for the piece on one or both of the major auction compilation sites (Liveauctioneers and Invaluable) but you will need to register in order to see what the lot actually sold for, or if it did indeed sell and was not ‘passed.’ You will find many lots on both sites although there are some auctioneers who use one but not the other. Read the description to see if any damage is noted, although the better auctioneers will also show such areas in their photo(s.) Unfortunately, more and more are sidestepping that responsibility and stating that the item is sold “as-is” and simply not filling out the Condition field at all. These sold records go back much farther than eBay’s…more than a decade.

If you have decided to investigate having your Cybis professionally repaired….

Repair/Restoration Options and Resources

I’ve been fortunate to not need to repair any of my pieces and so I have not had personal experience with any of the following sources of porcelain repair; I’ve become aware of them either through the source itself or through someone who has heard of them from others. Although of course shipping is usually an option, it will add to the ultimate cost. Links to their website’s restoration-service information will open in a separate tab. Although most restoration shops have a ship to/from option, I’ve indicated their approximate location for those who may prefer to send and pick up their item in person. These are listed in alphabetical order by state.

Avery Gallery in Marietta, Georgia
(about 20 miles from Atlanta)

Weston Gallery in Manasquan, New Jersey
(southern New Jersey/Jersey shore)

Old World Restorations in Cincinnati, Ohio
This is a full-service restoration shop for paintings, photographs, and various objects including porcelain and metal. Although art restoration appears to be their primary focus, a correspondent of mine was very happy with the work done on an extensively damaged piece of Cybis in the early 2000s.

Wiebold Studio, in Terrace Park, Ohio
(a suburb of Cincinnati, about 5 miles from Old World Restorations)

A. Ludwig Klein & Son in Harleysville, Pennsylvania
(about 30 miles from Philadelphia)

For Cybis owners in the Cleveland, Ohio area, a possible resource may be to contact the Museum of American Porcelain Art. Although they do not do repairs themselves, they might have contact information for someone in the general area who does.

On the West Coast, another resource in the same vein is the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California. This is run by David Armstrong, who owned one of the major Cybis retailers back in the day: Armstrong’s Gallery. Although there’s no indication of repair services on their site, I’d be very surprised if there are no restorer names in their files!

There are additional options available to those who live in or near a major city that is also home to a branch of the two major auction houses. Their ceramics department may have the name of one or more experienced porcelain restorers (it is best not to specify that the item is Cybis or Boehm, if you can avoid it; there’s a definite degree of snobbishness when it comes to porcelain at the high-end auction market.) There is a Sotheby’s in New York City, Los Angeles, and Palm Beach (as well as London and various European cities) but Christie’s is only located in NY City within the USA. Bonhams has a location in NY City and also in Los Angeles. If you are looking for the best potential quality of restoration, you may have better luck with shops recommended by these auction houses that normally offer high-end/antique porcelain items. That said, restoration shops that normally repair Sevres, Meissen, or Ming may “not have time in the schedule” for something like Cybis. But it can’t hurt to ask.

If you have a figure with damaged or missing lace, it is important to mention that when you are asking for references. This is because restorers who are accustomed to repairing Meissen and/or Dresden figures from the 1800s and 1900s will be far more likely to do a good job than a shop whose most common workload is repairing vases, fashioning replacement flowers and leaves, or reattaching body parts. Porcelain lace creation and repair is a skill that has become almost extinct.

A similar, but more practical, approach is to see what higher-end art galleries are in your general area. I’m not using the term in the same sense as for the auction houses mentioned above, but certainly such places are higher-end than shops that display “antiques and collectibles”, often from multiple sellers under one roof. Those places will be no help at all. Instead, use the Avery and Weston websites as a guide, and don’t hesitate to use website quality as part of your initial assessment. While a professional-looking website is not necessarily a guarantee of good workmanship, a sloppy or amateurish site is a sure indication of carelessness, disinterest, or ignorance (whether the store created the website themselves or approved the work of someone else.) The watchword for any art restoration is “attention to detail”; if a business doesn’t apply that to their public face, they’re unlikely to apply it to whatever else they do.

It is always best to contact more than one potential restoration service, if at all possible. It helps if you have a few photographs to submit along with your initial contact; they are imperative if you will need to ship your item to the restorer you select. If you are asked to leave the piece for further review or estimate (I don’t recommend this), make sure you take plenty of photos of it on the spot, and get a signed receipt that lists in exhaustingly complete detail everything that is and is not damaged. You don’t want to get an estimate that includes elements that you know weren’t damaged when you initially walked in their door with it, but cannot prove otherwise.

Being able to compare three repair estimates would be ideal.  Armed with those figures, you can do your repair/value assessment. But what if you have two estimates that vary widely, one of them being do-able (either budgetarily or within your cost/value parameters) and the other being much higher? That is a tough question, because presumably you have no personal experience with or recommendations for either establishment. You don’t want to overspend, but don’t want to waste money on what may be a bad quality repair either. This situation is less likely than finding out that the market value of the Cybis piece doesn’t justify the cost of repair, however.

If any reader has personal experience with a specific gallery or restoration shop, please feel free to let me know so that I can consider adding them to this section. If you happen to have any before-and-after photos of the work they did, that would be even better! There is a contact form link below.

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