The Cybis porcelain studio produced three different representations of the iconic mythical flying horse. The Pegasus Colt ‘Free Spirit’, designed by Susan Eaton, is 9″ tall and appeared in 1980 as a limited edition of 1000 for $675.
Within that declared edition there are 52 that have a slight difference in their decoration, which is the color of the rope around the colt’s neck. Normally this would be no cause for comment, except for the unusual reason behind the color and the quantity (52.)
The standard retail-edition Free Spirit wears a lilac rope with gold stripes and tassel, while 52 of them wear a plain yellow rope. The floral decoration is the same on both, which is a tiny pink rose, two even tinier blue flowers, and two leaves.
It has recently been discovered and verified that the yellow ropes were painted that color because they were intended to be sent as a gift to the fifty-two Americans who were released at the resolution of the Iran Hostage Crisis in the early 1980s. Why yellow? I’m glad you asked!
In the early 1970s, songwriters Irwin Levine and Larry Brown collaborated on the lyrics of a song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, that was recorded by Tony Orlando and Dawn; it sat at the #1 position on the pop music charts for more than a month in 1973. It was subsequently recorded by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and countless other musical artists. Mr. Levine later explained that he was originally inspired by a Civil War era poem wherein a soldier asks his beloved to tie her handkerchief to a certain tree if he will still be welcome upon his return, but that a yellow ribbon seemed more romantic! The song, and the yellow-ribbon symbolism, became popular again during the hostage crisis and yet again during the Gulf War of the early 2000s.
The timeline of the hostage crisis overlaps that of the production history of the Cybis Free Spirit. This piece could have been designed at any time during the 1970s but the decision to introduce it was made in either late 1978 or early 1979. Free Spirit was a Fall (October) 1980 introduction from Cybis and so actual physical production probably began in June 1980 if not before. The studio would need enough examples to send at least one to every retailer, plus additional pieces for on-site sales at the larger galleries’ Fall 1980 collector event.
The Iran Hostage Crisis began on November 4th, 1979 but the hostages were not released until January 19th, 1981, which was more than a year later. Someone at the Cybis studio suggested that ‘Free Spirit’ would be a fortuitously ‘design-relevant’ sculpture for the studio to present as a gift to each of the returning hostages, especially if each were to wear a yellow rope instead of a lilac-and-gold one. The idea was green-lighted and resulted in 52 pieces with a yellow rope.
Clearly, the creation and production decisions for Free Spirit took place months before the Iran hostage crisis began; it was just pure luck that the studio already had a piece in production in early 1981 that could connote a ‘flight to freedom’ and was easy to adapt with only a single minor paint change.
However, it soon became obvious that the hostages were being deluged with a veritable flood of gifts from manufacturers, public organizations, local governments, private donors, etc. etc., ad infinitum. Joseph Chorlton realized that the Cybis piece would simply be lost in the crowd and might even be seen as a somewhat tacky publicity grab, and so the idea was abandoned. Although the 52 pieces had been painted, they had not yet been marked as A.P. which was the studio’s standard procedure for any piece that was not part of a normal retail production run. This meant that the yellow-rope Free Spirit were now free (sorry, could not resist!) to become retail pieces. Someone came up with the idea of adding value by offering one each to their “best” 52 retailers on a first-come/first-get basis. The criteria was probably based on retailer sales volume during the prior year (1980). My guess is that this all took place in February 1981, so the timing of the usage switch was perfect. I have no idea whether the studio upcharged the retailers for the yellow-rope version, or whether the retailers passed that on to whatever customer (if any) eventually received it.
Unfortunately, the creation of the ‘hostage gift’ pieces had already been leaked to the local media before the plan was abandoned. As a result, a snippet in the Asbury Park Press caused much future confusion by claiming that the Cybis studio had made “52 special pegasus sculptures decorated with yellow ribbons” for the hostages, but not including any photograph. I confess that this sloppy description (“yellow ribbons” instead of “a yellow rope”) launched me on a years-long futile hunt to find any ribbon-bedecked Free Spirit pieces before I learned the real story!
The question of when the Free Spirit edition ended is a bit murky. A status-update list from Cybis, showing all pieces that were completed or retired between January 1980 and January 1984, does not include it. This means that as of January 1984 they were still producing them. I do not have any 1984 or 1985 price lists, but their 1986 (and final) catalog includes a photo of it. However, unlike their previous catalogs, the 1986 one does not include any indication of edition status. I do not have any 1986 or 1987 price lists, but I do have one from February 1988 – and Free Spirit is no longer on it. My hunch is that 1987 was probably the final year, but whether the edition was completed or was closed early is another question.
It’s a Numbers Game
Notice that the timeline described above means that a fair number of Free Spirit pieces had already been physically created, wearing the lilac-and-gold rope, by February 1981. My guess is that production of those had been going on for at least six months, assuming an early-summer 1980 start. So you would think that, especially with a declared edition of 1000, the sculpture numbering would at least have cracked 100, if not more, before the decision was made to not send the yellow-rope ones to the Iran hostages. When those became part of the retail line, they received retail sculpture numbers, just like the lilac-rope ones did.
The following is a list of the yellow-rope Free Spirit (which I’ve informally dubbed “The 52”) by sculpture number, gleaned from various past online sales listings. I would like to eventually be able to list all of The 52 by their sculpture number. It would be especially interesting to discover what the lowest-numbered yellow-rope piece is, because that should indicate how far along the studio had come in their production of the standard (lilac-rope) Free Spirit in the six months or so before February/March 1981. In researching the yellow-ribbon numbers, the highest-numbered lilac-rope example I found is #808. So, it is quite possible that Cybis did make 1000 of these – or at least, a quantity fairly close to that.
Known Yellow-Rope ‘Free Spirit’ Sculpture Numbers
The following eleven pieces of The 52 have either appeared for sale online or are known to be currently in a private collection. As you can see, the lowest number currently known is 71, which puzzles me because I would have thought the studio would have made at least 100 lilac-rope ones initially if they wanted each of their retailers to have one to display at its October 1980 introduction or for holiday-1980 shoppers. Does this mean that some retailers did not get at least one example of each new Cybis piece twice a year? Perhaps.
The sculpture numbers themselves are ‘all over the map’ at this point, which is also puzzling. If this list can eventually fill in, more of a pattern may emerge. Are the majority of The 52 numbered in the 300s? Were they numbered in the order of when the first 52 retailers answered Yes or No to the question of whether they wanted one? If so, how long (number-wise) did it take to assign/send the last one? This could become quite the ‘numbers game’ indeed!
I also found an old eBay listing from 2019 with photos that show a yellow-rope Free Spirit but with no photo of the signature area and no mention of the sculpture number in the description. So, that one could be one of the pieces listed above or it could be another example entirely. Very frustrating indeed.
During the 2019-2020 studio liquidation auction sales, a yellow-rope example marked A.P. was included in one of the multi-piece lots. As my post on that topic explains, this marking does not mean that a piece was an actual artist proof.
If any reader happens to own a Free Spirit that is not on the above list, I would appreciate knowing what number it is. There is a contact form link below. It would be nice to know that all of them survived!
Name Index of Cybis Sculptures
Visual Index (for human figures/busts only)
About the Cybis Reference Archive
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