You may have seen examples of Cybis porcelain art sculptures for sale in antiques stores or online shops and auction venues and wondered ‘What is this stuff, anyway, and what makes it worth more than, say, Hummel figurines?’ This will serve as a general introduction.
But first, some backstory. Boleslaw Cybis (pronounced SEE–bis) was born in Lithuania in 1895. During the 1920s and 1930s the quality of his work was recognized throughout Europe and culminated in a request from the US government to create a series of murals for the “Hall of Honor” in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. After obtaining US citizenship he and his wife Marja established a studio in the NY City suburb of Astoria, with a focus on ceramic scuptures in the tradition of the artisans of Eastern Europe; in 1942 he decided to relocate to Trenton, NJ. Cybis named the new venture the Cordey China Company and produced china giftware – painted and highly glazed china figurines, giftware, and lamp bases, all lavishly embellished with applied decorations such as ‘dipped lace’ ruffles, flowers, leaves and vines. By the late 1940s Cybis decided to shift entirely to art porcelain; in 1950 he opened a second location in Trenton and named it the Cybis Porcelain Art Studio. Shortly thereafter he sold the Cordey China Company which continued under new ownership as a lamp manufacturer.
The sculptures produced in the early 1940s are best described as “artsy” and bear little resemblance to the studio’s subsequent output. They were the sort of thing that Great-Aunt Matilda would probably regard with tilted head and a distinctly puzzled expression before turning to you and commenting, in a desperate attempt to be polite, that it was “interesting, although a bit odd.” One wellknown early Cybis bust of a woman has hair that resembles a collection of worms – that sort of thing. The overall genre is that of Neo-Meissen rococo and papka, applied decorations being overwhelmingly in evidence.
Boleslaw Cybis died in 1957, and his wife Marja in 1958; his protege Marylin Kozuch took over the ownership of the studio as per the terms of Cybis’ wish that the artistic integrity of its work be maintained in perpetuity. Among the best and brightest of the talented porcelain artists who were drawn to the increasingly-respected Cybis studio was a young Hungarian immigrant named Laszlo Ispanky who joined the studio in 1960 and quickly rose to the position of Master Sculptor. His influence is seen in all of the portrait sculptures from that era. In 1966 he left to establish his own studio and distinctive line of porcelain sculptures.
Because Cybis sculptures were created in an artisan environment and never mass produced, the level of detail work is quite high. The creation of a sculpture itself (and its subsequent master mold) was only the beginning of the process. Next would come experiments in colors and decorations via “Artist’s Proof” sculptures from which the final specifications would be chosen. Specific paint colors were developed which could withstand the multiple firings with their colors consistent (although the legendary Blue Fox which went into the kiln as a sculpture in its normal reddish brown paint but emerged in the most remarkable shades of blue, is a notable exception which has never been explained). The small size and intimate surroundings of the studio, as well as its philosophy, meant that the actual production output was extremely limited even by the standards of the day.
The original Lady Macbeth sculpture – a 15” tall, closed limited edition from the Portraits in Porcelain collection – illustrates the level of fine detail work typical of Cybis. Note the realistic sculpting of her hair and its ornaments, as well as the detailed ‘brocade fabric’ of her gown. Each color on this sculpture, no matter how faint, was hand painted and then fired. Last to be applied was the 24k gold, often with the smallest brush imaginable… yet no errors of application exist. At the time of her introduction in 1975, Lady Macbeth retailed for $850 and was $1125 when the edition was completed in 1982.
Similar attention to detail is seen in this artist’s proof of Queen Guinevere, a later portrait which was introduced in 1983. The intricate gold decoration that appears on the inside of her sleeves only hints at the similar level of detail in the rest of her gown and the surface of the throne upon which she sits. (More views of this piece are in the Portraits from Literature post.)
This view of part of an artist’s proof of the Lady and the Unicorn also demonstrates the intricate details of both sculpture and painting that is virtually impossible to find in any mass-produced decorative item.
Cybis also produced very fine animal sculptures with a level of realism that gave each one its own unique personality. These adorable young foxes Chatsworth and Sloane – a now-closed limited edition introduced in 1986 for $495 – are almost irresistible with their bright eyes and alert expressions.
Cybis was somewhat less successful with their flower and bird sculptures. Although the delicacy and beauty of their applied flower decorations cannot be denied, the sculptures that were entirely floral studies can sometimes look a bit “heavy” when compared to examples from Boehm, their NJ-based American porcelain art rival, and also Connoisseur of Malvern (England) who produced amazingly detailed floral studies in both limited and non-limited issues.
As for birds, Cybis was up against some pretty stiff competition from “avian specialists” such as Royal Worcester’s Dorothy Doughty, Connoisseur of Malvern’s Christopher Ashenden, and of course Edward Marshall Boehm. Cybis did best with their late 1960s/early 1970s sculptures of birds-and-flowers such as the Kinglets on Pyracantha and Blue Headed Vireos with Lilac. The majority of their other bird sculptures are well done but not what can be described as spectacular. On the other hand, a few of their large bird sculptures such the Great White Heron, the Great Horned Owl ‘Koos Koos Koos’, and the Kestrel were the equal of many Boehm pieces. (Cybis’ best bird and wildlife studies, which are magnificent, were sculpted by Charles Oldham.)
A rarely seen bird sculpture from 1960 is Cybis’ Blue Vireo ‘Building Nest’. This bird is unusual both in coloration (this particular shade of blue) and the style of painting of the feathers which resembles the 1940s handpainted Takahashi bird jewelry. The design is also unusual in that the “hole” is not located on the underside of the piece but instead is incorporated into the design. This sculpture, which stands approximately 6” tall, was not a limited edition but was produced for only a short time. In 1984, a good 25 years after its introduction and fairly rapid retirement, an example of this sculpture commanded a price of more than $1000 on the secondary market.
Images of Cybis porcelain sculptures are provided for informational and educational purposes only. All photographs are copyrighted by their owner as indicated via watermark. Photographs bearing a Cybis watermark originally appeared within their copyrighted publications and/or website and appear here by kind permission of Cybis, Inc. for use solely as reference material herein. Please see the copyright notice below regarding the use of all text appearing on this website.