A Cybis Porcelain Exclusive for The First Lady

One of the most rewarding aspects of creating and maintaining this site is discovering the story behind ‘mystery sculptures’ – those that never appeared in any Cybis publications, advertising, or retail stores. Typically they pop up unexpectedly on eBay or within a query from an Archive reader; but one in particular puzzled me for several years. In late 2021, I finally learned what it was and why its identity has been so elusive for so long.

I first saw this black-and-white photo of Marylin Chorlton about four and a half years ago (late 2017.) The white bisque sculpture of a mother and two children is strongly reminiscent of the studio’s first two Classical Impressions sculptures, which were Leda and the Swan and Icarus. However, that series did not begin at retail until 1986, more than a decade after Marylin’s death. This particular piece was never part of the Classical Impressions series, or any other, and is not in any Cybis retail lists. The photo is date-able to the mid 1970s not only via Marylin’s age here, but also by the Lady Macbeth seen in the background which was a Spring 1975 retail introduction; the studio would have begun physically producing them in 1974 and continued into 1975.

Although she is definitely a “classical” personage, my first question was ‘Who is she supposed to represent?’ Renaissance artists often portrayed goddesses wearing a one-shoulder chiton like this, although no respectable ancient Greek or Roman woman would ever do so in public. From the photo – which I wish was sharper – it looks as if she is wearing a wreath or chaplet of leaves.

Perhaps the two children may offer a clue. They are not twins; the child on her lap is definitely younger than the toddler behind her right shoulder. The age difference – and this assumes that whoever sculpted this piece had a particular mythological character in mind – thus eliminates the goddess Leto, the mother of twins Apollo and Artemis, who obviously would be the same age.

Another small niggle that wouldn’t go away was the presence of an ear of corn or wheat stuck into the goddess’ bodice. I’d eliminated Ceres/Demeter as a possibility, because that goddess only had one child: Persephone/Proserpine. There really was no other goddess associated with crops or grain. What other literary/mythological female figure had two children, fairly close in age and at least one of whom looks like a boy?

Famous ‘classical’ brothers… hmmm…. Romulus and Remus? Nope, the mother is definitely not a wolf. Thor and Loki? Nope, this is not Nordic female attire. Cain and Abel? Well…wait a second, there’s a thought. Could the “goddess” be Eve?

According to the bible story, Cain was born first, so he must be at least a year older than Abel (perhaps more, if Adam was often away, roaming around the acreage killing snakes instead of spending quality time with his wife.) As they grew, the boys found useful occupations: Abel as a shepherd, and Cain as a farmer…. growing, we can assume, something like wheat because after all, everyone needs bread. Supposedly, it was Cain’s offering of some of his crops vs. Abel’s offering of cute little baby lambs, that started the trouble between the two and resulted in Cain killing his brother in a field (of grain?). In this context, placing an ear of corn or wheat into the Cybis design would make sense if it is meant to presage the tragedy that will come. Creating a sculpture of Eve with her two sons at the time of their innocence is an interesting idea. In fact, the only discordant note here is the laurel wreath on her head – if that’s what it actually is, and not simply an elaborate braid. This narrows down the possible subject of the title to either Leto (with reservations/allowing for inaccurate research) or Eve. Was this a test piece, a prototype for a sculpture that never ended up being released, or a retail edition that had somehow escaped being advertised anywhere?

The answer, as it turns out, is something rather more special. This was a piece that was reserved for (although not originally designed for) the exclusive use of a particular First Lady.

As mentioned in my Gifts of State post, it has long been customary for manufacturers of ‘higher end’ American-made goods to send a selection of their current wares to a display mounted by the Gifts Unit of the U.S. State Department each year. During the 1970s, these were typically held at Blair House, across the street from the White House. The current President and/or First Lady would often be there along with the various officials and functionaries whose job connects them with the process of selecting the items that will be presented to foreign dignitaries during official visits. Among the items that the Cybis studio sent to the 1974 Gifts Display was one of these sculptures. Under normal circumstances there would be no way to ever find out what pieces the studio had sent to any Gifts Display. However, this particular piece found its way into several State Department documents that are now public record because it was given as an official gift on four separate occasions.

October 8th-9th, 1974 in Washington D.C.

The first identification of this sculpture as something out of the ordinary occurs in a memo dated October 4, 1974 from the State Department’s Protocol Office to President Gerald Ford. The subject is Suggested Gifts for The Polish First Secretary and Mrs. Gierek, and this is the third paragraph:

This immediately solves the mystery of why this piece never appeared as a Cybis retail introduction, was not included in their 1978-79 catalog Appendix of sculpture listings, and never mentioned in any of their advertising literature. It’s clear that when the Cybis studio heard that the First Lady, Betty Ford, had expressed her admiration for this particular piece, they offered it as an ‘exclusive’ item that would be available only to her.

President Ford’s Daily Diary shows that the Giereks visited the White House on October 8th and 9th, so that was when the actual gifts exchange would have taken place. Edward Gierek had become First Secretary of Poland’s United Workers Party and thereby held essentially the most powerful position in that country. One of the first things he did was to order that the rebuilding of the Royal Castle in Warsaw that had been destroyed when the Germans first attacked Poland in 1939 (the same invasion that, coincidentally, caused Boleslaw and Marja Cybis’ homebound ship to turn around and return to New York, without which there would have been no Cybis studio to create the gift that was being presented in 1974.) The Cybis piece was an official gift from Betty Ford to Stanislawa Gierek. Edward Gierek died in 2001, and his wife in 2007. There is no record of what happened to the Cybis piece after its 1974 presentation.

There is a brief mention of what might well be this occasion, in one of Cybis’ 1975 brochure/booklets, then called The Phoenix: a comment that “Eve was presented to the Premier of Poland” among a recap of studio events during the previous year. The only retail Cybis sculpture with “Eve” in its name was Eve in The Garden which appears on their 1963 price list but is gone by 1966 which is the next one that I have. (Speculation about what that piece may have looked like can be found in this post.) If the Cybis studio had indeed named the piece given to the First Secretary (not Premier) of Poland “Eve”, that would seem to confirm the Eve/Cain/Abel guess. It certainly would be possible for whoever wrote the 1975 Cybis text to confuse the titles ‘First Secretary’ and ‘Premier’, because in our country any “Secretary of…” position is subordinate to the Chief Executive.

October 21, 1974 in Arizona

The second known presentation of Probably-Eve/Cain/Abel was from Mrs. Ford to Maria Echeverria, wife of President Luis Echeverria of Mexico. The two presidents had agreed to meet along the U.S./Mexico border in the town of Nogales which straddles the two countries. The community on the United States side is Tubac, Arizona and the meeting took place at the Tubac Country Club.

I am indebted to the wonderful staff at the Gerald R. Ford Museum  and the National Archives for this photograph that they located within their files, showing Mr. Ford and Mr. Echeverria looking at the Cybis sculpture in its presentation case. Although only part of it is visible from the camera’s angle, there is no doubt of what it is. The official gifts to and from the two presidents were on display in this room at the country club; for example, the carved mahogany baby seal visible at the lower left of this photo was a gift from President Echeverria to President Ford.

This zoomed detail area of the photo shows that the sculpture is mounted on a walnut base with an enameled Presidential Seal affixed to the front. This seal was typically put onto any Cybis gift of state that was mounted on a base; see the Gifts of State post for other examples. President Echeverria remained in office for another two years after receiving this gift; Mrs. Echeverria passed away in December 1999 at the age of 75. It is not known what happened to the Cybis piece.

The next two presentations of Probably-Eve/Cain/Abel took place outside the United States.

June 1-3, 1975 in Austria

Here again we thank a Protocol Unit memo (two, actually) for documenting the gifts that President and Mrs. Ford selected for use on their summer 1975 European trip. Among the Designated Gifts for the various Austrian dignitaries, we find this confirmation:The sculpture was given to Herma, wife of Austrian president Rudolf Kirchschlager, in Vienna. Mr. Kirchschlager, who was the Austrian president from 1974 until 1986, also received a Cybis Unicorn. Mrs. Kirchschlager passed away in 2009. The whereabouts of the Cybis piece is unknown.

August 2, 1975 in Bucharest, Romania

The final known presentation of the Probably-Eve/Cain/Abel piece is the one that had the most dramatic ending some years later. State Department records show that it was given by Mrs. Ford to Elena Ceausescu, wife of Romania’s new president, Nicolae Ceausescu. He, had, like Kirchschlager, become president during the previous year and his Socialist Republic of Romania was the first of the Eastern European nations to establish diplomatic relations with the West. However, the Ceausescu regime also proved to be one of the most totalitarian in Europe, and growing internal unrest in Romania culminated in the collapse of his government in December 1989. Both of the Ceausescus were arrested on charges of genocide, subjected to a swift trial whose outcome was predetermined, and summarily executed; two weeks later, Romania permanently abolished capital punishment. What happened to their possessions is unknown but it would not be surprising if most, if not all, were destroyed.

No copy of the sculpture is in the holdings of the Gerald Ford Library, nor is one known to be at Rancho Mirage in California.

The only photograph that shows this sculpture actually being presented (in a way) is the one that was taken in Arizona in 1974. There are so many official gifts exchanged when any one international dignitary visits another, that it would be impractical to photographically document them all. I have found only two photographs showing the entire sculpture: the black-and-white one shown first in this post; the other appears in a photo of the interior of a private house, taken by a visitor who was looking at some things being offered for sale. It is not known how many of these were actually made; did the Cybis studio send several at once to the White House, in case they were needed (and if so, how many and what happened to the ones that were never used?); or did they hold them in reserve at the studio until the Gift Unit asked for one? I suspect the latter, because of the cost of adding the walnut base and carrying case. It would have been routine for extra pieces to have been cast, and it’s possible that the example in the private home is one of those. None were included in the 2019-2020 liquidation auctions of the remaining Cybis studio backstock, however.

I want to again express my thanks to the amazingly helpful people at and connected with the Gerald Ford Presidential Library for searching their records for my ‘mystery piece’ and especially for finding the Arizona photograph. Much of our email correspondence took place while COVID was still causing staffing shortages at many locations, which made things even more challenging. I really appreciate their help and I also apologize for this post being so late in coming; I had originally intended it to be done in January but, as so often happens, the best-laid plans….!!

If anyone does happen to have a photograph (or better yet, several from different angles!) of one of these – or knows the ultimate fate of the four that were given as official gifts in 1974 and 1975 – I’d be delighted to see/hear about them! There is a contact form link below. Based on the evidence thus far, I have updated this piece’s description in the Name Index to Eve with Cain and Abel to reflect the most likely subject/title of the sculpture.

Name Index of Cybis Sculptures
Visual Index (for human figures/busts only)

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