The Cybis Blair House Indians

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For the past several months I’ve been ‘digging’ into an unusual story, trying to separate fact from fiction. This particular investigative endeavor involves a set of Cybis’ North American Indians sculptures.

The story begins in the early 1970s, most likely 1972 or 1973. Several newspaper articles about the Cybis studio mentioned that a set of their North American Indians series was on display at Blair House. The earliest published mention seems to be in July 1973 in a local Louisiana newspaper called Town Talk. It stated that the “entire edition” of the Indians sculptures “is being placed in Washington’s Blair House.”

Page 95 of the 1979 Cybis catalog says that “The entire series is permanently on display in Washington’s Blair House, where they have found a fascinated audience in dignitaries visiting from abroad.” Their 1981 catalog repeated this assertion, with “our nation’s official guest house” inserted into the sentence.

Blair House is a group of four separate but adjacent townhouses on Pennsylvania Avenue that are collectively referred to as “Blair House” ever since their physical connection during the 1950s and 1960s. The actual Blair House itself was built in the mid-1800s. It was purchased by the US Government in 1942, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, in order to give visiting dignitaries and heads of state somewhere to stay that wasn’t either a public hotel or the White House itself. Although sometimes called “The President’s Guest House” the only occasion when a President stays there is, traditionally, the night before the Inauguration.

Because the Blair House complex is owned by the US Government it is managed by the Chief of Protocol’s Office which is part of the Department of State.

Another 1970s newspaper article mentioned that the sculptures were displayed in “the reception room” but there are several rooms that could qualify for that description. Unfortunately I have been unable to find any circa-1970s photographs of Blair House in which the Cybis Indians appear.

Assuming that Cybis sent the Indians to Blair House in 1973, the pieces would have been: Beaverhead Medicine Man, Minnehaha, Hiawatha, Sacajawea, At the Council Fire, Chato, and Magic Boy (those were all issued as retail pieces by that point.)  Blair House probably also received some of the subsequent pieces, such as the Crow Dancer (retail issue in 1977) and the chief Wankan Tanka (retail 1979).

It’s not known whether Kateri Tekakwitha (retail issue 1981) and the lacrosse player Tascalusa (retail 1982) were sent as well. But let’s assume for the moment that Cybis sent them shortly before these two became available to retailers. That would mean that at the end of the 1970s Blair House would have had nine sculptures,…..possibly 10 or 11 if Kateri and Tascalusa were dispatched in 1980 or 1981. (Full size photos of all of the Cybis Indians are shown in the North American Indians post.)

The “Disappearance”

Here’s where it gets interesting. In the spring of 1982 some serious structural issues were discovered at the complex, including weakened gas mains posing a danger of explosion. As a result Blair House was closed in July 1982 and a young man named Randy Bumgardner, who had recently joined the Protocol Office, was tasked with cataloging everything in Blair House in preparation for all the items being removed, packed up and stored during the renovation work. So by the end of 1982 all of the Cybis pieces had been taken…. somewhere. This is where we lose track of them.

It took several years for the work to be completed, and in the meantime the Blair House Restoration Committee was established in 1985. The Committee hired several high-end interior designers, including Mario Buatta, to give the interior of the townhouses a new “look.” By all indications the Cybis Indians were not chosen to be part of the new design aesthetic. Selwa Roosevelt was the Chief of Protocol from 1982 to 1989 and personally directed the restoration project. She is the chairman of the Blair House Restoration Fund today (the Fund is a private organization that is not part of the US government.) I have made several efforts to contact her but have never received a reply.

Remember that the 1979 Cybis catalog does not specify whether the Indians were given to Blair House (which would have generated a tax writeoff,) or were loaned to them for display. It says only that “the entire series is permanently on exhibit at Blair House” which doesn’t help either way. If they were given/donated, they then would belong to the Protocol Office and, by extension, the Department of State.

Where Are They Now?

I was curious about what happened to the “Blair House Indians” after 1982. The renovation cost 10 million dollars and was completed in 1989, thus spanning two administrations (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.) President Bush left office in January 1993 after being defeated by Bill Clinton; that was four years after the reopening of the repaired and redecorated Blair House. Keep those dates in mind.

What do the Blair House Indians have to do with who was President and when? Because a story has circulated claiming that “Bill and Hillary Clinton stole the Blair House Indians when they left office in 2001.” Strangely, this claim has been promulgated by the Cybis studio itself. What was the basis for this accusation?

After Cybis cut ties with its retailers during the 1990s, collectors would interact with the studio more often than before. The studio was now selling directly to the public for the first time. According to Theresa Chorlton, one day a collector told her in a phone conversation that she had bought one of the North American Indians; Mrs. Chorlton asked her who it had been purchased from. The collector replied “from Blair House.” Mrs. Chorlton then asked someone in the office to contact Blair House and inquire as to the whereabouts of the Indians that had, as she describes it, been “given to them on permanent loan.” The person at Blair was unable to supply any information as to the Indians’ present whereabouts or disposition.

The assumption was then made by the studio’s management that the by-then-departed Clintons had been involved in the Blair House sculptures’ disappearance. The reasoning went like this: “The Indians were in Blair House before the Clintons took office; they were not there after the Clintons left; there were reports about the Clintons having taken various items that had been in the White house; ergo, the Clintons must have also taken the Cybis Indians.”  (There are several logical flaws in this argument, not least that Blair House is not the same as the White House; in addition, that all of the items in the news reports were personal gifts that had been specifically given to the Clintons while in office….which the Indians were not.)

The other part of the theft-contention was the claim that the Indians were at Blair on “permanent loan”….which is an oxymoron. A loan by its nature is temporary; you’re expected to give the item back eventually. On the other hand, “long term loan” does imply a return of the item in the distant future.  Could Cybis have intended the Indians to be at Blair House on a “long term loan” basis? I asked this question of someone who was in upper management at the Cybis studio when the Indians were sent to Blair House in the 1970s: Were the sculptures “loaned” or were they “donated”?

This person’s answer was clear: “Everything we sent to Washington was always a gift. Not a loan.” So the Blair House Indians thus legally became owned by the State Department and/or the Protocol Office, to do with as they wished, whenever they wished.

So what did actually happen to the sculptures? It is probable that the Blair House Restoration Committee’s fundraising activities included selling or auctioning off items that were not going to be part of the new decor; in fact the Fund raised almost $5 million from private contributors. No doubt there were fundraising auctions and other sales at various points in time; that would explain the collector telling Mrs. Chorlton that she had bought a piece “from Blair House.” The Blair House Restoration Fund continues to raise money on behalf of the facility today; it is an ongoing effort. But there is no evidence for the claim that the Clintons “stole” the Indians that had been packed up and put into storage (and quite possibly sold) years before they ever arrived in Washington.

Where are the Blair House Indians now? No doubt in someone’s collection, on their mantelpiece, in a curio cabinet… or maybe even one or two are sitting in an anonymous crate in the depths of some State Department warehouse. (Remember the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark? I can definitely imagine that!) For all we know, one or more may turn up on eBay someday! What I’m curious about is whether the bases had a special plaque or the sculptures had any special markings; but the likelihood is that they were probably just marked A.P. (artist proof.) But I’m pretty darn sure that none of them are sitting on Bill’s desk or Hillary’s dining room table. 😉

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