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?’ We’ll answer in a series of blog posts beginning with this one which serves as a general introduction.
But first, some backstory. Boleslaw Cybis 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. After obtaining US citizenship he 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 and busts lavishly embellished with traditional applied decorations such as ‘dipped lace’ ruffles, flowers, leaves and vines but with an outside-the-mainstream (and often rather melancholy) air. 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 facility and never again produced anything in china.
The sculptures produced in the early 1950s 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; 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 often nothing short of amazing. The creation of a sculpture itself (and its subsequent master mould) 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 below – 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 a brush so tiny that its bristles were counted in single digits… yet no errors of application exist. At the time of her introduction in the 1970s Lady Macbeth retailed for close to $900 and was over $2000 by the time the edition of 500 was completed.
Similar attention to detail is seen in “Queen Guinevere”, a later Portrait which was introduced during the 1980s at $1475 and is now near completion at a retail price of $3975. 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.
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 1992 for $795 – are almost irresistible with their bright eyes and alert expressions.
Cybis was somewhat less successful, from an artistic and/or technical point of view, 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 look overly “heavy” when compared to studios such as Boehm (their NJ-based American porcelain art rival) and most especially Connoisseur of Malvern (England) who produced perhaps the finest botanical studies in porcelain ever done.
As for birds, Cybis’ track record is inconsistent. Boehm is regarded as doing much better ‘bird’ work and rightly so. 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 in all respects the equal of anything that Boehm ever produced. The problem was that overall, Cybis’ bird designs were not consistent in detail and quality.
A rarely seen bird sculpture from the late 1950s/early 1960s is the “Blue Vireo, Building Nest”. This bird is unusual both in coloration (this particular shade of blue was never used again) and the style of painting of the feathers which almost 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 collector market.
The next chapter of our series on Cybis Porcelain will focus on the various categories of editions and their values relative to each other and to the collector market.