The Curious Chronology of the Cybis Award Bowl

One of the Cybis studio’s ‘new’ retail introductions during the 1990s was a decorative piece that was ultimately titled Cupid Bowl, Original Famous Cybis Award. However, I recently discovered that its first appearance – like many of their 1990s-2000s offerings – took place decades earlier. It has been very interesting to dissect the chronology of this particular design.

The bowl has two design components: the footed bowl, and the cherubs surrounding it.

The 1950s Grapevine/Cupid Bowl

Thanks to the curatorial staff at the New Jersey State Museum, I discovered the original piece among their holdings. This is clearly a circa-1950s piece, not only because of the overall design and painting technique, but because we can link the cherub mold to two undoubted 1950s Cybis pieces.

According to the NJSM records, this item was acquired by them in 1970 along with numerous other pieces of Cybis from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s (the Museum has one of the two largest collections of Cybis in the USA, and will be the subject of a future Archive post.) Because the text description of this item in their database was inaccurate (cited as “molded white porcelain vase decorated with molded cherubs”) I didn’t realize they had this until I received this photograph. Prior to seeing the photo, the earliest known appearance of this item had been in 1982 but its origin is clearly several decades older!

Examination of the bowl (which can be described either as a ‘footed bowl’ or ‘footed compote’) by the museum staff revealed no Cybis signature or other marks on the underside. This would normally raise a question about whether this was indeed a Cybis item, but we do have a connection between this and two other 1950s Cybis pieces.

The bowl-cherubs are simply the baby Jesus mold that was used for the Walking Madonna (left; image courtesy of the New Jersey State Museum) and the Madonna ‘House of Gold’, with a pair of wings added. Both of these pieces were designed by freelancer Harry Burger, and sold as retail items by Cybis during the 1950s. The House of Gold, in fact, was first produced as a Cordey piece! (see the Archive post about this surprising discovery) In fact, it’s the only known religious-themed Cordey piece I’ve seen to date. Because Cordey operated from 1943 until the mid-1950s, it’s possible that the baby/cherub/cupid first made his appearance during the 1940s.

After the retirement of these two madonna pieces, this mold disappeared from use until the early 1980s – as will be discussed below – but at least we know his ‘origin story’ and age.

The bowl, however, is a different kettle (or bowl) of fish. I can’t escape the nagging feeling that this bowl doesn’t resemble anything in either the Cordey or Cybis typical retail lines of that day. The grapevine motif was very popular during the 1940s and 1950s, and was regularly found in glass, ceramic, and silver. For example, Lefton made at least three different designs that I’m aware of, and that was just that one company! So, the dating of the Cybis bowl isn’t in question. The issue is whether they acquired the bowl mold from another company (as was their wont during the 1950s for almost everything) and then just added their (winged) baby Jesus to it. I have not yet been able to match this bowl to any other manufacturer, but if anyone has this same bowl – in any material and without any cherubs – please let me know who made it. There is a contact-form link at the end of this post.

The 1982 Cybis Award

After the retirement of the 1950s pieces, the baby mold and the bowl disappeared for more than 20 years.

One of Cybis’ marketing decisions during the early 1980s was to launch an annual award/event to honor various persons noted for their creativity; at the event, the honoree would be presented with a special Cybis ‘award’ item. It was decided that, instead of creating a brand-new piece for the award, an existing design that was unfamiliar to collectors would be brought out of mothballs.

The June 13, 1982 edition of the local New Jersey newspaper Red Bank Register included an article by staff writer Marguerite Henderson, titled Randall’s the choice for Cybis:

The impeccable Tony Randall seems [sic] perfect choice for the first annual Cybis Award to be presented June 27 in [sic] Brielle China and Galleries…Randall – who starred on [sic] this year’s presentation of the TV Tony Awards – is being cited by Cybis for his creative imagination.

(Sorry but, as a retired editor, I cannot in good conscience let all those errata appear in public without inserting a sic, lol. There should be an a between seems and perfect; it should be at instead of in, not least because the presentation was to take place outdoors; and it should be in instead of on. Where was their proofreader? Yeesh.)

A follow-up article on June 28th, with no byline (but, thankfully, also no errata) and titled ‘Odd’ actor turns to art, related that

Randall received a sculpture recently produced by the studio: an interpretation of one of the works of the studio’s founder, Boleslaw Cybis, who died in 1957. Randall observed that the sculpture appeared to resemble a baptismal font. He said the cupid figures in the piece would fit in nicely with a painting on the wall of his New York apartment. Although the actor expressed great pleasure over receiving the sculpture, he showed no signs that he may become a collector.

Obviously, the ‘interpretation of…’ assertion is incorrect because we know that the baby mold was by Harry Burger and the bowl bears absolutely no resemblance to anything that Boleslaw Cybis himself ever designed (he’d probably spin in his urn at the very idea.) But we can’t blame the reporter for something that was told to him or her at the event. The Asbury Park Press also reported on the day:

The party was under a green-and-white-striped tent on the rear parking lot. Inside, guests were enveloped in the garden party atmosphere amidst greenery, fountains, flowers and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of delicate porcelains. A cupid-adorned porcelain bowl was given to Randall, who was selected for what was billed as the First Annual Cybis Award for creative imagination and outstanding achievement in the arts. The movie-TV performer confided, however, that he knew much less about porcelains than opera.

This photo, taken at the event, shows Mr. Randall receiving the piece from Joseph Chorlton while Dorothy Kaminski, also from the Cybis studio, looks on.
A zoomed detail shot of the actual presentation bowl. Here we can see that it’s mounted on a square white porcelain base with a felted underside. It also shows that the bowl is painted in pastel colors on white bisque.
This photo accompanied the June 28th Register article. Although in black-and-white, it shows that there are two modifications from the 1950s piece: the cherubs now wear a circlet of flowers, and there is now a flower (probably a small rose) adorning the bottom part of the base.

The 1983 Cybis Award

I recently discovered a newspaper clipping documenting a second presentation of this bowl by the Cybis studio.

The 1983 recipient was actress Ann Miller, who was a film star of note during the 1940s and 1950s. She appeared in movies including Stage Door with Kathryn Hepburn, You Can’t Take it With You with James Stewart, Easter Parade with Fred Astaire, On the Town with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, and Kiss Me Kate (a film adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew.) Miller was particularly noted for her tap dancing expertise.

Wiki includes the comment that

She was known later in life for her distinctive appearance, which reflected a studio-era ideal of glamour: massive black bouffant hair, heavy makeup with a splash of crimson lipstick, and fashions that emphasized her lithe figure and long dancer’s legs.

Miss Miller also appeared on Broadway in 1969 as Mame, and in 1979 with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies; it is very possible that she received this award at the same time that her co-star Rooney was given a Cybis Puck. She passed away in 2004.

I have, as yet, found no mention of the Cybis studio giving the award bowl to anyone after 1983.

The 1992 Cupid/Cherub/Award Bowl (retail piece)

The bowl went back into mothballs for a decade and then emerged as a retail item. The Cybis March 1993 text-only price list shows an open (non-limited) edition Cherub Bowl under the ‘Heritage Collection’ heading. There was no design number indicated, only that name and a price of $750. There are indications that it was first offered in this iteration in late 1992.

Their next price list (Fall 1993) no longer includes a ‘Heritage Collection’ and so they had to move this item somewhere else. The logical choice would have been ‘All Occasion Gifts’ which contained various items such as vases, boxes, the Gemini Bowl, and the Ginger Jar. However, the highest price in that category was $375 which meant that the Cherub Bowl’s price would stick out like a sore thumb. That’s when the studio decided to put it into the Hall of Fame section, even though it was the exact same size as the previous two iterations. They also re-named it Cupid Bowl, Original Famous Cybis Award (no doubt to justify putting it into the HOF category), raised the price to $850 and indicated that it was design #04068. In reality, this isn’t a “Hall of Fame” replica at all…if you accept the original HOF premise that those were intended to be downsized replicas of ‘pieces that were beloved by collectors in the past.’ That definition certainly doesn’t apply to this item!

CUPID BOWL AWARD by CybisUntil very recently, this archived Worthpoint/eBay listing was the only photo available of the 1992 version. Cybis never had a photo of it on their website and so a shopper would have absolutely no idea what this piece looked like! (This, sadly, was the case for more than a few items and one of several major failings of their website design.) Until I happened upon this photo in 2016 and recognized the piece from the 1982 event, I hadn’t made the connection either.

However, a helpful Archive reader recently shared these photos of his Cupid Bowl which he purchased at the studio during the early 1990s.

The numeral 3 seen at the left end of this photo is part of a mold impression referencing the copyright year (1993.)
This view shows how the interior of the bowl is decorated.

Speaking of design revisions, let’s see what has been modified in this version compared to the previous two. The most obvious is the colorway having gone from bisque decorated (in various colors) to gold-accents-on-white.

This lightly glazed but otherwise unfinished white example of the bowl mold exhibits two changes from the original 1950s one. [Photo courtesy of the Museum of American Porcelain Art, who acquired the bowl during one of the 2019-2020 liquidation auction sales of the Cybis studio’s backstock.]
These images compare the 1950s original (left) to the 1990s one. A small rose has been placed inside the oval cartouches (green arrows) and a raised motif has been added to the formerly-smooth outer edge of the bowl (blue arrows.) The 1982 Register photograph does show the rosebuds but no detail on the outer edge; however, it’s likely that both changes were made at the same time and so in this respect the 1982 and 1990s bowls are identical.

This image compares a photo of the 1950s cherub mold to the 1990s one. It is hard to tell from the photos whether the face sculpt itself was modified slightly in 1982, or whether the ‘modesty ribbon’ of dipped lace was also there at that time. I suspect that the ribbon, which is strategically but somewhat awkwardly placed in order to cover the anatomically-correct 1950s baby Jesus mold’s attributes, was probably not added until the 1990s version. The wings on the 1990s cherub appear to be slightly different molds from the 1950s version: more rounded on top and coming to less of a point at the bottom. However, photography angles can also be a factor when trying to judge things like this. The 1982 Award Bowl cherubs seem to have the circa-1950s wing molds.

This unexpected version turned up at a March 2022 auction sale. It is a pastel version of the 1990s one and was probably sold at the studio during the mid-1990s.
The black-paint, left-leaning Cybis signature also points to this having been an at-the-studio sale. Some of the pieces that were consigned to the 2019 liquidation auction had black-painted signatures, which was a color that Cybis hardly ever used for that purpose after the blue-paint-stamp era of the early 1950s. The underside of this piece is covered in grey felt that is heavily water-stained.

The Cherub Mold

The cherub mold, separated from the Cupid Bowl and without a flower circlet, was sold by the studio as an ornament starting in the 1990s. It is 5” tall, by the way.

This Cybis ad/photo appeared in the Classified section of an issue of Collector Editions magazine in 1991 and was described as the 1991 Cherub ornament. Notice that it has the modesty ribbon but no flower circlet, and that the ribbon is painted.

But guess what? This cherub had been hanging around the studio (literally) for nine years before his first appearance at retail. This photo was taken at the 1982 holiday party at the Cybis studio, and shows a white bisque one tethered to the top of a small Christmas tree. The fact that he/she is lashed to the treetop with what looks like a gold wire means that no modesty ribbon was applied. The blue ribbon at the top invites speculation because one would think that for a Christmas ornament it would have been either red or green.

The Cybis website contained this photo (in much smaller form; it had to be blown up to show any detail) describing the Blue Boy Cherub, First Edition as design #20930 and a Pink Girl Cherub, Second Edition as design #20931, as available holiday-ornament items. This one is clearly the boy cherub.

This piece was among the items in the studio’s 2019-2020 liquidation auctions. This may have been a retail piece during the early 2000s, or only intended as one, because the mold impressions on the underside read Cybis U.S.A. Trenton N.J. along with a freehand horizontal phoenix shape and 2002. I don’t recall seeing this on their website at that time but they may have been selling these during their short foray onto eBay. It’s the cherub, of course, sans modesty ribbon and with a red glass heart having been pressed into the ‘cloud’ that looks rather like a pile of Cool-Whip in my opinion. Perhaps he was meant to represent Cupid (but if so, where’s his bow and arrow?) or was a short-term Valentine’s Day venture. In any case, this is the only one I’ve ever seen, so perhaps he never made it to retail after all. This is the only time I’ve ever seen a glass element incorporated into a Cybis piece, which is why at first I thought he had been merely a just-for-fun effort by someone at the studio. However, in that case it would not have had those base-mold impressions.

The Bowl’s Ultimate Origin?

Although we can trace the baby/cherub’s history from his late 1940s/early 1950s creation by Harry Burger, to his final usage during the early 2000s, the real mystery is the bowl mold. I have Google’d myself almost to death looking for an exact match among vintage items and come up empty so far. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t come from one of the many mold making companies that existed in Trenton during those decades; there were about a half dozen big names (Holland, Atlantic, Schmid, etc.) but there were also countless small mold shops that were sometimes no more elaborate than a setup in someone’s garage or basement. Combine that with the popularity of the grapevine design at the time, and the odds of finding an exact mold-match nowadays is probably near zero. That said, I intend to keep checking!

My hunch is that the bowl mold was either purchased from a mold shop or cast from an existing bowl that someone brought into the studio. Holland Mold Company regularly acquired quite a few molds that way (including the ones that became the Cybis boy and girl heads), and Marylin Chorlton often brought ‘found objects’ to the studio during the 1960s and 1970s; the molds cast from them would then be modified or adapted. What we don’t know is whether that was happening during the 1950s as well. The standard procedure for most 1950s Cybis pieces was to combine a “bought-in” mold with additional elements of their own, which in the case of the 1950s bowl would be the baby Jesus mold from the existing two madonna figures designed by Harry Burger.

If anyone has an example of the 1950s bowl, or the exact same bowl by itself (sans cherubs) that has any kind of manufacturer’s name on the underside, I’d love to see it. That final nugget of information would complete the origin story of the Cybis Cupid Bowl from beginning to end!

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