Introduction


Robert Earl Burton founded The Fellowship of Friends in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970. Burton modeled his own group after that of Alex Horn, loosely borrowing from the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In recent years, the Fellowship has cast its net more broadly, embracing any spiritual tradition that includes (or can be interpreted to include) the notion of "presence."

The Fellowship of Friends exhibits the hallmarks of a "doomsday religious cult," wherein Burton exercises absolute authority, and demands loyalty and obedience. He warns that his is the only path to consciousness and eternal life. Invoking his gift of prophecy, he has over the years prepared his flock for great calamities (e.g. a depression in 1984, the fall of California in 1998, nuclear holocaust in 2006, and most recently the October 2018 "Fall of California Redux.")

But according to Burton, Armageddon still looms in our future and when it finally arrives, non-believers shall perish, while through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (recently expanded to 81 angels, including himself and his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci) Burton and his followers shall be spared, founding a new, and more perfect civilization.

Many regard Robert Earl Burton a narcissist and sociopath, surrounded by a largely greed- and power-driven inner circle. The following pages offer abundant evidence supporting that conclusion.

This archive draws from official Fellowship publications and websites, news archives, court documents, cult education and awareness forums, the Internet Archive, the long-running Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the (former) Fellowship of Friends wikispace project, the (ill-fated 2007) Fellowship of Friends Wikipedia page, and the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship. Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Monday, November 4, 1996

Trouble Taints a Cerebral Sanctuary

From Fellowship of Friends website

From the Cult Education Institute. Text also available at L.A. Times.
Robert Burton says his Fellowship of Friends celebrates intellect and offers a haven from nuclear holocaust. But claims of sex scandal prompt many to leave.

L.A. Times/November 4, 1996

By Jenifer Warren

Oregon House, Calif.--Deep in the Sierra foothills, at the end of a twisting road, lies Apollo--an oasis of high culture in the outback. A mock French chateau houses a museum and library stuffed with rare art and books. A vineyard on terraced hillsides produces award-winning wines. Apollo is the worldwide headquarters of the Fellowship of Friends, whose 2,000 cerebral members believe that keen self-awareness, a positive outlook and immersion in life's finest things--from Baccarat crystal to Johann Sebastian Bach--offer a path to higher consciousness.

They have been led on this journey for 25 years by Robert Earl Burton, a former schoolteacher who has guided everything from when his followers bear children to what sort of shoes they wear. Burton tells members he speaks with 44 angels who watch over his flock--among them Abraham Lincoln, Plato and Jesus Christ--believers say. Burton also has predicted that Apollo will be the lone surviving outpost after a global nuclear holocaust in 2006.

Disillusioned former members say the fellowship is more than just another California curiosity. A growing number of them--as well as some academics--call it a cult that entraps its mostly well-educated members with a false promise of spiritual evolution. A recently ended lawsuit and accounts from ex-members echo that claim and add another: Burton, they say, has for years seduced young males in the group.

The suit and similar allegations by other members have spurred dozens to leave the group. It was brought by a Marin County man who claims Burton first demanded sex from him at age 17. Troy Buzbee, who had asked for $5 million in damages, charged that Burton brainwashes members into a state of "absolute submission," allowing him to feed a "voracious appetite for sexual perversion."

Fellowship officials and their attorney, Abraham Goldman, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews about the group and Burton. The Buzbee suit was settled late last month. Buzbee's attorney, Ford Greene, would not comment except to say the case "is over."

Several former members, including some who held high-level positions, said the details in the suit served to confirm for them what a number of followers had come to suspect about the 57-year-old Burton. "For years I ignored or justified a lot of things, but this I could not ignore," said Pamella Cavanna, 54, who left the fellowship last year after devoting two decades and more than $250,000 to Burton and his teachings. "A teacher should have moral standards that we aspire to. Instead, Robert has standards we are forced to overlook."

Former members, as well as court records, fellowship documents and Burton's prolific writings to the faithful, reveal much about the group and a leader who rose from humble beginnings to command a little-known $26-million empire.

The Renaissance winery, operated by Fellowship of Friends in Yuba County, reflects the group's belief in a refined cultural and social milieu. Original photo by Robert Durell/Los Angeles Times.

To outsiders, the fellowship can have an entrancing face. Its headquarters sprawl across 1,300 acres in Yuba County about 70 miles north of Sacramento. Its Renaissance winery produces cabernets and Rieslings that have been poured for American presidents and are respected by wine experts. The Apollo Opera company recently mounted an acclaimed production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in nearby Grass Valley.
The fellowship also has a reputation in the art and antique world as a serious collector. The group recently liquidated its museum full of antique Chinese furniture, a collection considered among the world's preeminent holdings. The collection fetched $11.2 million at Christie's auction house in New York, where Disney chief Michael Ovitz was among the buyers, snagging a pair of elaborately carved cabinets for $607,500.

The winery, opera and antiques--along with the art, gardens, fountains, rare Persian carpets, inlaid Steinway pianos and other valuables sprinkled around the property--reflect the fellowship's guiding philosophy. A refined social and cultural milieu, writes Burton, helps a believer "awaken his higher centers" and develop an immortal soul.

"Robert always used to say, 'Beauty creates its likeness in those who pursue it,' " recalls one former member from Los Angeles who asked not to be named.

Attracting Followers

Burton commands an annual salary estimated by the group's former chief financial officer at $250,000 or more. Members serve as his bodyguards and chauffeurs, and one is often assigned to record his observations for the faithful. Rarely seen around Yuba County, Burton travels frequently in Europe, where he meets with followers and shops for collectibles for his stately Louis XVI-style home on the Apollo grounds.

Partial to silk socks, Burton at one time insisted his underwear be pressed, say ex-members. He also enjoys golf, manicures, fresh flowers, fine wine--and food. Standing more than 6 feet tall, he is slender now but at one point weighed close to 300 pounds.

A butcher's son born in Mineral, Ark., Burton graduated from San Jose State in 1963 and taught elementary school in Contra Costa County. In 1970, while living in a Volkswagen bus in Berkeley, he formed the fellowship, apparently after convincing a circle of followers that he possessed the powers of a superior being.

Robert Burton, founder of the group,
has faced criticism for alleged
sexual relationships with followers.
"He was quite wonderful then, a charming person of great knowledge," recalled Stella Wirk, who was one of Burton's first 10 students. Wirk said she and her husband were expelled from the group in the early 1980s after refusing to pay a $3,000 fine imposed by Burton for violating his rule against smoking.

Today, about 500 followers live and work at or near Apollo. Others live, work or study at more than 65 fellowship "teaching centers" worldwide. They hold regular jobs but, according to ex-members, socialize mainly among themselves and fill their off hours with meetings, dinners, concerts and other fellowship events.

Members are encouraged to limit contact with family and other outsiders whom Burton refers to as "dead" and "food for the moon." "Men do not understand what an affliction it is to be average and to participate with the stagnate masses," he once wrote.

The fellowship attracts followers who are highly educated and well-heeled. Believers tithe 10% of their income and make other "donations" throughout the year, according to the group's literature. An average American member gives more than $6,000 annually, the wealthy much more, said Charles Randall, the fellowship's former chief financial officer. He quit the group in 1994 after sending a letter to a fellowship official expressing disillusionment and advising him that men felt coerced to join Burton's "harem." Randall said the fellowship's annual income exceeded $5 million when he left.

Many members joined after finding fellowship bookmarks planted in volumes at metaphysical bookstores. The bookmarks guide the curious to upcoming "prospective student" meetings, held at lavish homes rented by the fellowship. After attending three such meetings, a recruit is invited to join, according to a lengthy 1993 explanation of the group written by members and published in the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, a Yuba County newspaper.

The group's roots are in the arcane teachings of two early 20th century Russian philosophers, George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky, whose ideas are referred to as The Fourth Way. One central premise is that humans are spiritually "asleep" and must strive for constant self-awareness to achieve true consciousness. Disciples must also refrain from expressing negativity, such as complaining, gossiping or using defensive body language. Such behavior is said to drain energy needed for the pursuit of enlightenment.

"It's all very stimulating stuff in the beginning--the ideas, the caliber of the people you meet, the music, the fancy dinners, Walt Whitman, all the culture," said Ron Lancaster, a member for nine years who joined while working at Hughes Aircraft Co. in El Segundo and left over Burton's alleged sexual conduct. "But there's no doubt it's a cult. Our lives were totally controlled."

Over the years, the members' personal hygiene, pets, hobbies, reading material and diet all have been influenced by Burton, often through written pronouncements.

In a June 1980 issue of the Renaissance Vine, a bulletin for members, they were told "the exercise of not expressing wit . . . has been resumed." At one point, Burton told members to trade their eyeglasses for contact lenses because "it makes the face a more beautiful impression." Any "discomfort from wearing the lenses," Burton said, "is good for voluntary suffering."

Another time he told married couples to wait five years before bearing children. Premarital sex and adultery were explicitly prohibited, as were homosexual relationships until the early 1990s, ex-members said. For a long period, women were required to wear skirts.

Members were notified in 1979 that "a new exercise begins this month: We are to avoid placing our elbows on flat surfaces such as tables or desks; armchairs are fine. . . . Additionally, we are asked to avoid using the word 'thing,' beginning August 1." To help shock members into spiritual wakefulness, Burton has periodically banned the use of such everyday terms as "I," "really," "oh" and "hi."

"It was strange," said Lancaster. "Instead of saying, 'I'll have a cup of coffee,' you'd say, 'It wants a cup of coffee' or just, 'Cup of coffee.' "

As part of his emphasis on refined living, Burton once sought to turn his flock into a replica of an 18th century English aristocracy. Members took Anglicized names and were told to use their utensils in the European fashion, with the fork in the left hand, tines pointed down. During this period, the common "cookie" became a "biscuit."

Inside the Fellowship

Burton is also regarded by followers as a prophet. When he forecast a worldwide recession in 1984, believers urgently stockpiled provisions and weapons. He has predicted that a 1998 earthquake will consume the West Coast but spare Apollo. As for the 2006 apocalypse, Burton says Apollo is an "eternal city" that will preserve culture for the ages. Some ex-believers say now that Burton's rules and pronouncements were a distraction, Wirk said, "to keep us from reflecting on what was really going on." At the time, however, the members said they followed Burton faithfully, believing that obedience would accelerate their spiritual growth.

"When people join these groups, they don't go in planning to surrender their critical thinking and personal autonomy to the will of the big kahuna. But that's exactly what happens," said Joel Friedlander, a fellowship member for 22 years who was editor of Burton's 1991 book, "Self-Remembering."

"The indoctrination is so complete, and the peer pressure so great, that gradually the old you is replaced by a new you who believes all the propaganda, including the line that eternal damnation is the price of getting out."

Margaret Singer, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Berkeley and a cult expert, said the fellowship uses techniques common to many cults. Veneration of a single living leader, authoritarian structure and intensive control of members' lives fit the classic profile, she said.

"They look for people who are a bit lonely or needy and they shower them with love, making them feel special," said Singer, who has tracked the fellowship and talked with many alumni. "From there, the control and manipulation happen one step at a time."

With the fellowship, Singer said, "it's all centered around giving money to Burton . . . his personality sets the tone and controls every little thing the group does."

Once in the fellowship, members become addicted to the feeling of belonging to a blessed elite, ex-believers say. Leaving that behind--especially after large investments of time and money over a period of many years--takes tremendous will, they say.

"It was terrifying to leave, because you're trained to view outsiders as this mass of sleeping humanity with no possibility," said a Bay Area woman who spent 20 years as a traveling teacher in the group. "And when you finally do get out, the fellowship community--95% of all the people you've known for the last 20 years--just drops you. You feel like you've wasted your life and have no place in the world."

Many ex-members said they were not spurred to leave until allegations emerged about Burton's sexual behavior. For years, they said, the teacher's alleged conduct was unknown because of strict rules against gossiping or speaking ill of him. Moreover, they said, Burton claimed to be celibate, saving his sexual energy for the good of his flock. Word of the leader's alleged habits first slipped out in 1984, when Samuel Sanders--a former member of the fellowship board of directors--sued the group, claiming fraud and alleging that Burton used his "god-figure role" to prey sexually upon impressionable young men. The Sanders suit--which was settled in 1988--led an estimated 100 members to quit.

A similar number left in 1995 after ex-member Richard Buzbee wrote an open letter to the fellowship's followers, claiming that Burton had demanded sex from him and had a sexual relationship with Buzbee's son, Troy, for many years.

Troy Buzbee, now 27, sued last April, claiming that Burton first seduced him when Buzbee was 17. Declaring himself "an angel in a man's body," Burton allegedly told Buzbee that the gods wished for the two to be close.

"Burton would kiss [Troy Buzbee] on the forehead, which he said represented the seat of the soul and then instruct [Buzbee] to 'separate' from his body and just 'let go,' " said the suit, which alleged the sexual encounters continued for more than five years and that Burton had sex with other young men. Although Buzbee said he was repulsed and suffered "self-loathing," his "brain was programmed to believe that there was no place to go," the lawsuit said.

Troy Buzbee is now married with a young daughter. He declined to be interviewed after the suit was settled, said his lawyer.

Numerous other ex-members have told similar stories in open letters to the membership and to each other, in newspaper accounts and in interviews with The Times.

Thomas Easley, Burton's secretary and chauffeur in the mid-1970s, has alleged that Burton forced him to have oral sex on many occasions, assuring Easley that surrendering to him would "please the gods and help my soul evolve.

"To understand how this can happen, you have to realize that this man is considered the height of the human species, the second Christ, the light," Thomas Easley, a member for 18 years and now an artist in South Lake Tahoe, told The Times. "Your instinct, of course, is to run away and refuse him. But how do you reject the teacher, the person in whom you've placed all your faith?"

Easley has copies of letters from other ex-members describing sexual relationships with Burton. Easley wrote to Goldman seeking an apology from Burton, and in a June 9, 1990, response the fellowship attorney wrote that Burton was willing to apologize if Easley agreed not to sue in the future. Easley charges were reported in 1993 in the Marysville Appeal-Democrat.

Bruce Levy, an ex-member who restores rare books in Grass Valley, also has discussed having a sexual relationship with Burton. "No one held a gun to my head," said Levy in an interview with The Times, "but in a spiritual sense, he did. Under his teachings, one has to do what one doesn't want to do in order to evolve spiritually. . . . It's the least you can do for your teacher."

Goldman, Burton's attorney, acknowledged in a 1995 article in the San Diego Union that the leader had sex with the senior Buzbee and at least one other male follower. Goldman said it was Burton's policy not to make public comments, and added that "we don't think a [sexual] relationship between a leader and a member of the congregation is abusive in and of itself."

Good Neighbors

Despite the controversy around Burton, the fellowship enjoys a relatively comfortable coexistence with its neighbors in Oregon House, a wisp of a town populated by retirees and urban refugees. In the early years, locals were wary of the newcomers, who poured in with chain saws to clear manzanita and terraced the hills to plant grapevines. The group also raised suspicions by closing a county road that crossed its property and buying up surrounding land when it became available.

Yuba County Assessor David Brown said the fellowship has rankled some people by seeking special tax exemptions to avoid paying property taxes, which totaled $273,000 last year. When one exemption--for the Apollo museum--was denied, the fellowship took the matter to court but ultimately lost. The fellowship is exempt from state and federal income taxes as a religious organization.

"At first . . . there was a lot of anxiety about them," said former county Supervisor John Mistler. "But they've worked hard on their image."

Some civic leaders now view the fellowship and its Renaissance winery--the county's third-largest taxpayer--as a source of pride. The group keeps a stretch of road litter-free through the state's Adopt-a-Highway program and gives generously to the local Lions Club. "This year, they've offered $10,000 toward our new community center, and around here, that's a big deal," said Ken Eaton, a retired contractor in Oregon House. "We don't understand them, but we live with them."

Meanwhile, ex-members say they live with lingering effects of their time at Apollo. One woman, who has been out of the group for two years, cannot listen to Bach without feeling a chill. Another catches herself standing in a daze in the supermarket, unable to make decisions such as which brand of soap to buy.
Janja Lalich, who runs a support group for ex-cult members in Alameda and who has counseled fellowship alumni, said such "mental traumas can be devastating."

"The real tragedy of groups like the fellowship," she said, "is they rip off the best and brightest people in society and use them like slaves for years. When these people get out--if they get out--there's an awful lot of pain to overcome."
Scott Wilson of The Times library contributed to this story.

Saturday, October 12, 1996

Record-setting sale establishes Chinese furniture in the West

[ed. - Sourced from proquest.com.]
The Vancouver Sun [Vancouver, B.C]
12 Oct 1996: E.9.

Abstract (summary)

The sale two weeks ago of Ming and Ching chairs and tables at Christie's in New York that totalled $11.2 million did more than set records. It signalled the coming of age in the marketplace for Chinese furniture, which had long been overlooked by collectors.

"Chinese furniture is no longer the orphan of the art world," says Theow-Huang Tow, head of the department of Chinese art at Christie's.

Christie's sale on Sept. 19 was the first auction of a comprehensive collection of Chinese furniture in the West and was the highlight of a week of Asian art sales in New York.

Full Text

The sale two weeks ago of Ming and Ching chairs and tables at Christie's in New York that totalled $11.2 million did more than set records. It signalled the coming of age in the marketplace for Chinese furniture, which had long been overlooked by collectors.

"Chinese furniture is no longer the orphan of the art world," says Theow-Huang Tow, head of the department of Chinese art at Christie's.

While the market in Chinese art had expanded steadily since the early 1970s, the strong international interest in this furniture is unprecedented.

For the most part, collectors of Chinese art had begun by buying small, readily available items like vases, boxes and paintings before moving on to bulkier, more substantial acquisitions like furniture.

As the market grew, bolstered by several scholarly books and exhibitions, big-name collectors and museums quietly began competing for the choicest pieces. They paid under $100,000 for pieces until 1990, when prices began to escalate.

Christie's sale on Sept. 19 was the first auction of a comprehensive collection of Chinese furniture in the West and was the highlight of a week of Asian art sales in New York.

The 107 chairs, tables, cabinets and screens sold at Christie's were from the Ming (1368-1644) and Ching (1644-1912) dynasties, the periods that inspired much that is distinctive and graceful in Western furniture: cabriole legs, claw-and-ball feet, tapered silhouettes and back splats on chairs.

The collection was assembled in the 1980s by the Fellowship of Friends, a philosophical and religious organization based in Apollo, Calif. It was sold in 1995 to Johnny Chen, a Taiwanese businessman, who sent it to Christie's.

The sale attracted buyers from around the world. Most were Americans, although Asians and Europeans were broadly represented.

"There's never been this concentration of high quality material in a Chinese furniture collection that also had an aura surrounding it," says Maxwell Hearn, curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in explaining the heightened interest in the sale. "Asian art has been undervalued, but that's changing now, as Asians become interested in owning their own heritage."

The bidding was driven by several prominent museums but mostly by private collectors. Michael Ovitz, president of the Walt Disney Co., bought a pair of tall, angular cabinets carved with figures of lions and dragons for a record $607,500. He bought through Nicholas Grindley, a London dealer, with whom he sat during the bidding.

Grindley was the most active buyer that day, spending a total of $1.6 million. He also acquired for Ovitz five horseshoe-back chairs.

The Metropolitan paid $173,000 for a generously proportioned 300-year-old painting table. That table, along with a more elaborate one carved with dragons and scrolls that the museum bought that week at Sotheby's for $310,500, will go on view in May, when the museum's Chinese decorative arts galleries open.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art paid $1.1 million, a record for Chinese furniture, for the rarest object at Christie's, a screen with a marble plaque striated with an image resembling mountains.

Robert Jacobson, the museum's curatorial chairman, says the screen would be a centerpiece of its new Chinese furniture galleries, part of a wing that will open in 1998.

Jacobson, who spent a total of $1.5 million at Christie's for eight pieces of furniture, also bought a horseshoe-back chair for $453,500 at Sotheby's.

Coincidentally, an exhibition of Ming and Ching furniture, "Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries," is currently on view at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Credit: NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Sunday, October 6, 1996

The Fellowship's "Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture" is liquidated

[ed. - "New Kid in Town" posted links to this article on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 1, 2007. I have included it in the timeline when the New York Times article first appeared. We are led to wonder if the deaccessioning of this furniture was precipitated by the escalating costs of Robert Burton's legal defense. See also: The Ming Furniture Mystery]
Learning to Love Furniture From China

By RITA REIF

Published: October 06, 1996

THE SALE TWO WEEKS AGO OF Ming and Ching chairs and tables at Christie's in New York that totaled $11.2 million did more than set records. It signaled the coming of age in the marketplace for Chinese furniture, which had long been overlooked by collectors.

''Chinese furniture is no longer the orphan of the art world,'' said Theow-Huang Tow, head of the department of Chinese art at Christie's.

While the market in Chinese art had expanded steadily since the early 1970's, the strong international interest in this furniture is unprecedented. For the most part, collectors of Chinese art had begun by buying small, readily available items like vases, boxes and paintings before moving on to bulkier, more substantial acquisitions like furniture. As the market grew, bolstered by several scholarly books and exhibitions, big-name collectors and museums quietly began competing for the choicest pieces. They paid under $100,000 for pieces until 1990, when prices began to escalate.

Christie's sale on Sept. 19 was the first auction of a comprehensive collection of Chinese furniture in the West and was the highlight of a week of Asian art sales in New York. The 107 chairs, tables, cabinets and screens sold at Christie's were from the Ming (1368-1644) and Ching (1644-1912) dynasties, the periods that inspired much that is distinctive and graceful in Western furniture: cabriole legs, claw-and-ball feet, tapered silhouettes and back splats on chairs.

The collection was assembled in the 1980's by the Fellowship of Friends, a philosophical and religious organization based in Apollo, Calif. It was sold in 1995 to Johnny Chen, a Taiwanese businessman, who sent it to Christie's.

The sale attracted buyers from around the world. Most were Americans, although Asians and Europeans were broadly represented.

''There's never been this concentration of high quality material in a Chinese furniture collection that also had an aura surrounding it,'' said Maxwell K. Hearn, a curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in explaining the heightened interest in the sale. ''Asian art has been undervalued, but that's changing now, as Asians become interested in owning their own heritage.''

The bidding was driven by several prominent museums but mostly by private collectors. Michael Ovitz, president of the Walt Disney Company, bought a pair of tall, angular cabinets carved with figures of lions and dragons for a record $607,500. He bought through Nicholas Grindley, a London dealer, with whom he sat during the bidding. Mr. Grindley was the most active buyer that day, spending a total of $1.6 million. He also acquired for Mr. Ovitz five horseshoe-back chairs.

The Metropolitan paid $173,000 for a generously proportioned 300-year-old painting table. That table, along with a more elaborate one carved with dragons and scrolls that the museum bought that week at Sotheby's for $310,500, will go on view in May, when the museum's Chinese decorative arts galleries open.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art paid $1.1 million, a record for Chinese furniture, for the rarest object at Christie's, a screen with a marble plaque striated with an image resembling mountains. Robert Jacobson, the museum's curatorial chairman, said the screen would be a centerpiece of its new Chinese furniture galleries, part of a wing that will open in 1998.

MR. JACOBSON, WHO SPENT a total of $1.5 million at Christie's for eight pieces of furniture, also bought a horseshoe-back chair for $453,500 at Sotheby's.

Coincidentally, an exhibition of Ming and Ching furniture, ''Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries,'' is currently on view at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Several pieces in the show were lent by Edward C. Johnson 3d, chairman of Fidelity Investments, the mutual fund giant, and a board member of the museum, who was a bidder at Christie's.

''Americans have been the prime movers in collecting and showing Chinese furniture recently,'' said Wu Tung, the curator of Asiatic art at the museum.

In fact, the interest in Chinese furniture began in the United States in 1970 with the publication of Robert Ellsworth's ''Chinese Furniture,'' a book showing major pieces from American collections that is still considered the bible on the subject. Mr. Ellsworth's second book, ''Chinese Furniture: The Mimi and Raymond Hung Collection,'' which was published last month, documents a collection in Hong Kong, one of five formed over the last 20 years in response to the growing interest of Westerners.

Once the value of Chinese furniture was raised in the West, renewed interest in such pieces could be seen in Asia. Mr. Ellsworth said that even museums in China now recognized the importance of Chinese furniture as art. The Palace Museum in Beijing added furniture to its galleries six years ago, and the Shanghai Museum is opening a special gallery of furniture on Thursday.

"New Kid in Town" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 2, 2007:
China Art: The Next Eldorado?

By Souren Melikian

Published: SATURDAY, OCTOBER 26, 1996

“This paved the way for Christie’s own sale of Ming furniture on Sept. 19 in New York. It consisted of a collection put together in Northern California and sold for $11,237,480, the highest figure for any Chinese art sale since the 1990 art market slump.

Throughout Christie’s sale, the role played by the Chinese was much in evidence not just as collectors, but as major players in the action. The entire collection, dubbed by the founder of the spiritual brotherhood who had built it up, the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, was acquired en bloc in 1994 by a Taiwanese businessman. He initially wanted to keep the best and sell off the rest. Mr. Tow of Christie’s was among the first to learn about it, giving him a head start on the competition.The sale fell in his lap. Mr. Tow’s worldwide network of Chinese connections was yet another advantage in helping to focus the attention of many new buyers on the art……”

"New Kid in Town" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 2, 2007:
“Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture”
by Sarah Handler

Page 4 of Introduction:
“In 1990 the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture opened in Renaissance, California. Founded by the Fellowship of Friends in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California, this museum was the only one in the world devoted exclusively to Chinese furniture.

To promote the study and appreciation of furniture, the Fellowship also published the quarterly Journal of the Classical Chinese Furniture Society.”
See Paragon Books.

The Journal of Classical Chinese Furniture Society was published by the Fellowship of Friends from the Winter of 1990 to the Autumn of 1994. Prices ranged between $20.00 and $50.00 per copy sold.
[ed. - Additional history and book review:]
 San Francisco was again the site of a Chinese furniture exhibition in 1995–96, when the collection from the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture was shown at the Pacific Heritage Museum and a catalog published. The Journal of the Classical Chinese Furniture Society ceased publication at the end of 1994, and in September 1996 the museum’s entire collection was sold at Christie’s in New York for unprecedented sums. The collection had been formed during the 1980s and ’90s, when many excellent pieces of classical furniture were coming out of China.
Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture

By Sarah Handler
Austere Luminosity of Classical Chinese Furniture by Sarah Handler
University of California Press, Oct 30, 2001 - 417 pages
Chinese classical furniture is esteemed throughout the world for its beauty, functionalism, and influence on contemporary design aesthetics. Sarah Handler's stunningly illustrated volume traces Chinese hardwood furniture from its earliest origins in the Shang dynasty (c. 1500 to c. 1050 B.C.) to the present. She offers a fascinating and poetic view of Chinese furniture as functional sculpture, a fine art alongside the other Chinese arts of calligraphy, architecture, painting, and literature.

Handler, a widely respected scholar of Chinese furniture, uses her knowledge of Chinese social, political, and economic history to provide a backdrop for understanding the many nuances of this art form. Drawing on literary and visual evidence from excavated materials, written texts, paintings, prints, and engravings, she discusses how people lived, their notions of hierarchy, and their perceptions of space. Her descriptions of historical developments, such as the shift from mats to chairs, evoke the psychological and sociological ramifications.

The invention of a distinctive way to support and contain people and things within the household is one of China's singular contributions, says Handler. With more than three hundred exquisite illustrations, many in color, Handler's comprehensive study reveals "the magical totality of Chinese classical furniture, from its rich surfaces and shrewd proportions down to the austere soul of art that resides in the hardwood interiors." Austere Luminosity recognizes Chinese classical furniture as one of China's premier arts, unique in the furniture traditions of the world.


"joeyaverage" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 2, 2007:
About the proceeds of the Ming furniture sale – the official story spread among the faithful was that these turned a boarded-up Lodge, condemned by the board of health, into “Apollo D’Oro” [restaurant]. I have no way of knowing if that is true, but the timing of the events concurs.

"Maria" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 2, 2007:
While Burton was enjoying his millions, his dear students who have paid for those millions, were starving, working on the vineyard for 12-16 hours a day for $200-$300 a month, suffered illnesses without medications and died in poverty and in despair.

"New Kid in Town" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 2, 2007:

I think there was a middle man in that Christie’s auction. The FOF probably sold the collection to the Taiwanese businessman, who then auctioned it off for $11 million at Christie’s.

The question is….. how much did the Taiwanese guy pay the FOF for this collection????? And perhaps the payment wasn’t declared as taxable income. If it was declared at all, maybe it was called a $10 million dollar charitable donation????

"RobertC" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 1, 2007:
434 brucelevy [post number and blogger]

Indeed I was there, through the early 80s. I was certainly not as aware as you were of the nuance, being a little naive about such things, but there was plenty that set off my bullshit detector, and towards the end my eyebrows were in a state of almost continuous ‘raisedness’.

Certainly I saw that either a) some sweet young thing, or b) some wealthy person, would appear and be instantly swept into the ‘inner circle’. This just stank to me. This was supposed to be a conscious school, and how in the world would that fit in? It didn’t inspire further confidence that the wealthy persons would not infrequently bail from the Fellowship with no advanced warning. Decidedly curious.
Then there were the requests for gifts for our ‘beloved teacher’. Those requests were not nearly as nauseating as the great example posted above (419 Purchasing Awakening) [post number and blogger] concerning the purchase of Abundance, but still they were setting me off.
Finally I tilted at the Ming furniture donation. Here the people on salary at then Renaissance were living in relative poverty in inadequate housing while working their asses off and being underpaid, and what we were raising money for was incredibly expensive Ming furniture for a present for our teacher? And of course there was always the unspoken implication that if you were not generous it meant that you did not value the school or the teacher or your work enough.

Of course the general explanation/excuse for this sort of nonsense was that it was for the civilization, the ark, that we were creating. But what decent civilization would not take care of the people who needed taking care of most.

To my eye, there is just no getting around the fact that if you observe the behavior of Robert Burton carefully, you will see that he is acting in the interest of none other than Robert Burton, and that the bizarre behavior he exhibits can be explained best by unrestrained monomaniacal greed. No reason to beat around the bush on this.

And I say to you, dear reader who might still be in the Fellowship, don’t refuse to look, and buffer by thinking I am just being negative. Look for yourself. The path to awakening must come through our own experience. It cannot come through believing what others say.

"Vena" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 1, 2007:
And how did it work with all the various collections over the years, from Meissen porcelain, French Furniture, Cameos and cuff links, the Berensen Art Library, Steinway pianos, European oil paintings, Ming furniture, etc.? We were told each time a new phase of collecting began that this is what the “Gods” wanted for the Ark. What happened to the money when those collections were liquidated?
And what happened to all the hundred’s of thousands of dollars raised to finish the Theatron

"Purchasing awakening" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 1, 2007:
Vena [blogger]:
What happened to the money when those collections were liquidated?
An official version about Ming furniture collection is that it was sold at one of large auctions and some woman who helped to broker the deal apparently stole all the money (millions they say) and disappeared.

How convenient. No furniture – no money.

Now, did it actually happen? Who knows.

"brucelevy" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 1, 2007:

433 Purchasing awakening [post number and blogger]

I had heard the the Ming collection went at auction, I think, for around 6 mil. I think it was the first (and maybe only) art deal, in all the years, that made money for the FOF. Personally, I don’t believe it disappeared, at least not via the broker. Of course I could be way off base, but that’s how it feels to me.
Remember Vigee Lebrun [painting in the Fellowship's collection]? Didn’t we buy it high the first time, sold it low, re-bought it high again? I don’t what happened to it after 85.

"Associated Press" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 2, 2007:

This info found on the internet:

D_v_d Spr_ngf__ld, Esq., is licensed to practice in all courts in the State of California. He has experience in the field of … art fraud litigation, including trials, bench trials, arbitrations, summary judgment motions, discovery, mediations, and appeals in both federal and state courts.

D_v_d Spr_ngf__ld’s practice areas include general business disputes; unfair competition and unfair business practices; Section 17200 claims; art fraud litigation; medical malpractice; elder abuse; wrongful death and survivor actions; fraud and misrepresentation; sexual harassment; defamation law; malicious prosecution and abuse of process; anti-SLAPP motions; and intellectual property law.

D_v_d Spr_ngf__ld has worked for the law firm of A_r_h_m N. G_ldm_n & Associates for more than 10 years, first as an investigator and paralegal before joining the firm as an associate attorney in 2003. As an investigator and lead paralegal, he made a major contribution in obtaining more than $35 million in judgments against various co-conspirators in a major art fraud case

Monday, September 30, 1996

Fellowship Gathers for Harvest

[ed. - This is an Internet Archive capture of the Fellowship webpage.]

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Appeal-Democrat 1996
Peter Searle offers a sampling of guitar music
Sitting in the middle of the vineyard, his back pressed against the vines, Peter Searle used his guitar to lull fellow harvesters who were sipping coffee and chatting while on a short break from the work that started at dawn.

Each year, the 20 to 200 workers, most of them Fellowship of Friends members, come from all over the world, many dedicating their annual vacations to working sunrise to sunset harvesting the grapes grown in the vineyards of Renaissance Winery in Oregon House.

“It’s a special time of year for us,” said Fellowship of Friends spokeswoman Cynthia Hill.
“On the slopes you will find the CEO of the winery and president of the fellowship ... so whether you live and work here or are visiting from St. Petersburg or Palo Alto, suddenly we’re all here for the same thing,” she said.

“All year we’re working on different things. Then at harvest we’re all working on the same thing. It unifies us,” Hill said.

The 100 miles of terraced vineyard that colors the Yuba County foothills is the largest mountainside vineyard in North America. The 365-acre vineyard comprises more than one-fourth of the 1,200 acres that are home to the Fellowship’s 600-member Apollo Center in Oregon House.
Planted 20 years ago, it has since produced world renowned award-winning wines on a picturesque mountainside reminiscent of European vineyards.

“The location of the vineyard is what makes (the wine) special,” said wine maker Gideon Beinstock. “Like a fruit tree, if you plant the same tree here and in Yuba City, they will produce very different fruits.”
Page 1 of 2


Peter Searle, originally from Ireland and now a Yuba County resident, offers a sampling of guitar music during a morning harvest break in the shade of the vine rows.
Photos by Craig Kohlruss
Norbert Dugas snips grapes
The vineyard is owned by the Fellowship of Friends, a 2,000-member worldwide association that follows the Fourth Way tradition of spiritual development established by Greek-Armenian philosopher George Gurdjieff and respected Moscow journalist P. D. Ouspensky.

“In the slopes, higher up, soil is lean and that makes the grapes very tiny, which creates a very concentrated juice,” Beinstock said. “You get very deep colors and very deep flavors,” he said.
Generally, the mountain soil is leaner, which forces the vine to work harder, said assistant harvesting manager David Darby.

“Mountain harvest puts more stress on the vine, which is what you want, because the more pressure you put on it, the better the quality of fruit,” Darby said.

“It’s unusual to use mountain soil for wine making. Mountain soil decreases the yield, but increases the juiciness of the grape,” Hill said.

“In the end, it’s the taste of the land that comes through in the wine,” she said. “The uniqueness of the land here and soil all become very critical.”
The conditions of the mountain soil vary every 10 feet, which combined with the microclimates of the terraced vineyard, pushes the vines into varying stages of maturity and gives every vine its own characteristics.

“Ten-thousand vines are like having 10,000 people,” Darby said.

When harvest begins and ends is dictated by the weather. Harvest of the white grapes generally starts the first week of September, but because of this summer’s heat wave, began in mid-August. The reds, however, remained stable during the blast of heat.

Rain earlier this month slowed harvesting of the reds some, but doesn’t seem to have hurt the crop, Darby said.

“You can’t pick the grapes when they’re wet because the stagnate water on a picked cluster of grapes will dilute the fruit’s sugars and acids,” Darby said.

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Norbert Dugas, who lives at Apollo, snips grapes along with about 20 to 30 other Fellowship of Friends members during the morning harvest at the Renaissance vineyard. The members, many from all parts of the world, take care to pick only the finest grapes to make a high-quality wine.

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Appeal-Democrat 1996

Simon Ford dumps picked grapes into a bin

Harvesting of the whites has to be done in the cool hours of the day, so picking begins around 5:30 a.m. and ends around noon. The reds, however, can withstand the heat, and will be harvested sunrise to sunset.

Pickers are primarily fellowship members who come to enjoy harvest time, Hill said. Extra workers are hired only as needed.

People are working together in small groups, for up to 14 hours a day, and conversing about their different cultures, Hill said, so harvest is also a time for members to bond with each other.

“I think for all cultures, harvest has been a time for being together, getting together,” Hill said.
Searle moved with his wife from Ireland to Yuba County five years ago to work in the winery full-time.

“You start at a quarter to five and go through till sundown,” he said. “It’s a massive effort. Time tends to stand still. I tend to forget what day it is.”

 “You get that energy level going and by the second week of red harvest, you’re almost in a different world,” he said.

Page 2 of 2


Simon Ford of London dumps picked cabernet sauvignon grapes into a bin to be taken to the winery for crushing.






Thirty-thousand cases of wine are bottled at Renaissance each year and sold all over the world, with about 20 percent sold in the Far East and Europe.

“The Orient, China, Japan and Taiwan are really opening up,” said Iona Brode, the winery’s director of marketing.

The cabernets and late harvests are especially popular overseas, she said.
In domestic sales, “we’re just beginning to get into other states,” she said, with distribution in New York and Florida. She couldn’t estimate how much wine is sold outside of California.

“People are seeking out the regional wineries more so within the last four to five years,” she said, whereas in the past, the Sonoma and Napa wines were the most popular.

“People are ready to move on and experiment with different wines now,” Brode said.

Sherry Barkas
 

At a glance - Renaissance Winery facts

Established:
1976 Vineyard:
365 acres
Varieties:
48 % cabernet sauvignon
30 % sauvignon blanc
11 % riesling
6 % chardonnay
4 % merlot
1 % cabernet franc
Elevations:
1,700 to 2,300 feet with slopes up to 50 degrees
Average yield:
1.8 tons per acre
Winery storage capacity:
61 fermentation tanks, 1,800 oak barrels
Winery tours:
Wednesday through Sunday by appointment
For tour information and reservations:
(800) 655-3277


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Winemaker Gideon Beinstock tastes grape must
Winemaker Gideon Beinstock tastes grape must, of a merlot blend that has fermented for one week, while working in the winery at A

Saturday, September 21, 1996

Short, Happy Life of a Chinese Collection

Fellowship of Friends cult Ming furniture collection sold
[ed. - Sourced from proquest.com. In its closing comment, the article suggests the real reason for the sudden sale: to pay the costs of settling the lawsuit brought against Burton by Troy Buzbee.]
By Souren Melikian
International Herald Tribune [Paris]
21 Sep 1996

Abstract (summary)

Many strange stories can be heard in the small world revolving around the art market. But none quite matches that of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture collection scattered to the winds at Christie's when its 107 lots sold for an aggregate $11.2 million, lifting Chinese Ming furniture as a whole to unheard of heights.

Its improbable beginnings go back to the mid-1970s when a schoolteacher called Robert Burton founded a spiritual community, the Fellowship of Friends, in Oregon House, in Northern California. According to Curtis Evarts, curator of the defunct museum who became a member in 1975, its aim was "the spiritual enhancement of the individual parts through a system of psychological development," inspired by the writings of George Gurdjieff and Piotr Ouspensky.

Burton then turned to Old Masters. Some very substantial pictures were bought, including such works as a "stable scene" by Terborch now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, "Jesus as the Man of Sorrows" by Morales, or the portrait of Countess Kaganek painted in 1792 by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. The Old Masters, too, were resold in order, Evarts says, to release funds for the acquisition of Chinese furniture.

Full Text

Many strange stories can be heard in the small world revolving around the art market. But none quite matches that of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture collection scattered to the winds at Christie's when its 107 lots sold for an aggregate $11.2 million, lifting Chinese Ming furniture as a whole to unheard of heights.

Its improbable beginnings go back to the mid-1970s when a schoolteacher called Robert Burton founded a spiritual community, the Fellowship of Friends, in Oregon House, in Northern California. According to Curtis Evarts, curator of the defunct museum who became a member in 1975, its aim was "the spiritual enhancement of the individual parts through a system of psychological development," inspired by the writings of George Gurdjieff and Piotr Ouspensky.

One of the basic tenets of the psychological system, Evarts says, "is to bring refinement to the moment." Hence the attention they brought to "the dining experience."

One thing leading to another, a large collection of 18th-century porcelain was built up at the instigation of Burton, followed by silver plate. Eventually, both collections were sold off.

Burton then turned to Old Masters. Some very substantial pictures were bought, including such works as a "stable scene" by Terborch now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, "Jesus as the Man of Sorrows" by Morales, or the portrait of Countess Kaganek painted in 1792 by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. The Old Masters, too, were resold in order, Evarts says, to release funds for the acquisition of Chinese furniture.

This abrupt change of orientation came about as the community remodeled the Renaissance, California, vineyard house in which it had its headquarters. French domestic architecture of the Louis XVI period served as a model. In order to match the 18th-century whiff of the interior design, they bought porcelain commissioned to Chinese manufacturers by 18th-century French merchants, the so-called "Compagnie des Indes" or "China Trade" porcelain.

Burton was looking for porcelain in 1987 when he walked into a Paris shop and caught sight of two Chinese armchairs. Burton who, by all accounts, has a remarkably good eye, was struck by the beauty of the smooth linear structure and the toned wood with purplish hues called zitan. After consultations with the board of directors of the Fellowship of Friends, Evarts assures, Burton bought them and took them back to Oregon House.

The armchairs, which they later found out were of the 18th century, were greatly admired. Evarts, who was running the architectural workshop producing the interior designs for the Neoclassical decor in progress, was ecstatic. It was decided that a matching table was needed. One was found.

Burton, the born art hunter, began to look hard for Chinese pieces. He bought a wonderful 17th-century carved table in Jichimu wood, which sold at Christie's on Thursday for $44,750.

Enthusiasm grew rapidly within the Fellowship. Evarts, in earlier days, had mastered the skills of joinery after dropping out of school (he could not bear the tedium of his engineering studies). He became fascinated. He restored the furniture and gazed at it at length in the studio where he directed the photography required by the installation of the works of art for which he was responsible.

It was decided to set up a Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture. In January 1990, Burton asked Evarts if he would consider becoming the curator of the collection in the making. He would, indeed.

Whereupon, Burton dispatched him on a world tour of museums holding significant groups of Chinese furniture the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan, the Boston Museum of Fine Art in America, the Victoria & Albert Museum and British Museum in London, and a few more. Evarts returned with a rich store of visual and tactile knowledge and proceeded to learn Chinese in order to gain direct access to literary sources.

The Fellowship of Friends was dead serious about its Chinese collection. A Classical Chinese Furniture Society was founded in 1990 and a quarterly Journal of the Classical Furniture Society launched in the winter of 1990. Over the next four and a half years, pioneering research work was published in the superbly laid-out magazine, illustrated with outstanding photography it was the first and only one of its kind in the Western world.

The systematic buying campaign entrusted to Evarts began.

Part of it was inevitably a process of learning through trial and error. The Fellowship of Friends probably acquired three times as many pieces as the 107 lots included in Thursday's sale. The timing was good. A relatively large amount of the Ming furniture that had escaped the destruction of the Cultural Revolution tumbled on to the Western market between 1990 and 1993.

One of the first acquisitions made by Evarts was a pair of 17th-century drum stools in the hard wood called huanghuali. Often seen in woodcuts and hand scrolls of the period, few such stools have survived. Evarts had some qualms when he found the first stool in Hong Kong, but felt reassured by a technical detail when he succeeded in finding the second piece in the pair a year later. His craftsman's instinct had served him in good stead. Estimated to be worth $30,000 to $50,000 in Christie's catalogue, the pair soared to $190,000 $211,500 with the sale premiums.

Soon after, he laid hands on a table with low cabriole legs, also of the 17th century. On Thursday the table exceeded by half its high estimate as it brought $51,750.

But all that pales into insignificance by comparison with the large screen on stand carved with openwork panels to serve as a monumental frame for a marble slab the natural veins of the marble suggest a mountainous landscape.

Again, while the type of screen can be seen in hand scrolls, set behind the seats of dignitaries, only one other example is known to survive, in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Evarts at first received photos of the dismantled panels, with accompanying dimensions. He made drawings which he assembled to have an idea of its appearance. The screen looked fabulous. Evarts flew out to Hong Kong where the splendor of the carving confirmed his first impression. The Fellowship rallied to his views.

So did the New York attendance on Thursday. At $1.1 million, the screen has become the most expensive piece of Chinese furniture in the world. It will shortly grace the Minneapolis Institute of Art through the generosity of a benefactor of many years, Bruce Dayton.

For Evarts, the Chinese furniture saga should have culminated with the exhibition of Chinese Classical Furniture held from June 1995 to March 1996 in the Pacific Heritage Museum in San Francisco.

It was accompanied by a catalogue that will stand as a reference book for years to come. Written jointly by Evarts and the great Beijing scholar Wang Shixiang, now in his 80s, the catalogue is referred to throughout in the Christie's sale catalogue.

Alas, in 1994, the Fellowship, advised by Burton, decided to part with the collection in order to switch to French decorative art. The journal abruptly ceased publication in the winter of 1994. A planned exhibition project at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Washington had to be dropped after the decision to proceed with the sale became known.

Mysteriously, trade sources report, a Taiwanese businessman called Johnny Chen appeared, bought the collection en bloc, and consigned it to Christie's. The estimate given by Christie's before the sale, $6 million to $8 million, implies that Chen's investment was $6 million at the most. The difference with the end result primarily reflects the phenomenal marketing campaign conducted by Christie's.

The Far East, they say, is good at learning fast. It apparently excels at playing the Western art market.
But of the two, it is the Western party that comes out as the most inscrutable. Bets are still open on the real reasons that led to the sale of the delightful, if short lived, "museum" collection.

Illustration

Caption: Huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair of the late 16th or early 17th century, and detail of the U-shaped top rail. Photo Credit: Christie's

Copyright International Herald Tribune Sep 21, 1996

[ed. - Sourced from proquest.com.]
No cheap seats at this auction
By Scarlet Cheng
Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition [New York, N.Y]
19 Sep 1996: A20.

One of the most impressive collections of classical Chinese furniture in private hands goes to market today -- and gets dispersed to the four corners of the world. The collection hails from the U.S., where it will be auctioned, a curious fact on the face of it until one learns that Westerners have been at the forefront of initiating and sustaining interest in this field.

Today the term "classical Chinese furniture" refers to Ming-style furniture made during the Ming (1368-1644) and early Ching (1644-1912) dynasties. Given the upheavals of Chinese history and the perishability of wood, even hardwoods as used in fine pieces from this "golden age," good examples are hard to come by, and thus increasingly costly.

The 107 pieces in the collection were gathered beginning in 1989 by the art aficionados of the Fellowship of Friends and were displayed at the organization's Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture in Renaissance, Calif. They are to be auctioned off today at Christie's in New York in an atmosphere of high anticipation among collectors and dealers.

"It is the most important, the best collection of its kind to reach the market," says Gloria Wu, a top Hong Kong dealer who sold the California museum a number of its pieces. "There are some truly outstanding pieces and examples of things of which very few have survived." She cites the folding chair (jiaoyi) dated to the late 16th or early 17th century, a high chair with a sweepingly curved horseshoe back. The whole thing can be collapsed like a modern director's chair and was meant for the aristocratic traveler who had porters to tote it from location to location. Tendril-like carvings decorate the panels, including a representation of a ding bronze stylized after the character "shou," for long life, on the back splat.

"Less than 20 of these are datable to the Ming," Ms. Wu says of the folding chairs. "And only five have silver inlaid into iron decorations such as this one. The base for such chairs dates to the Han [202 B.C.-A.D. 220], so this one is both rare and historically important." Rarity and history don't come cheap: This chair carries a hefty $300,000 to $400,000 estimate.

While some items have appreciated in value modestly since their acquisition by the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, others have doubled, even quintupled in price. Ms. Wu cites an elegantly rectilinear meditation chair in huanghuali (yellow flowering pear) wood, which sold for about $30,000 in 1990. The estimate for that item is now $80,000 to $150,000.

What are the aesthetic appeals of such furnishings? "The purity and simple elegance of design, the relatively unembellished design," says longtime collector Robert Piccus, a businessman based in Hong Kong. "The quality of construction -- it's ingenious joinery. These pieces were made without screws or nails, they were beautifully fitted. And the woods used -- beautiful woods such as huanghuali, zitan [purple sandalwood] and jichimu [chicken wood], some of which don't exist anymore."

In China furniture was never taken as seriously as porcelain or paintings. But Westerners in prewar China were taken by Ming furniture's clean lines, which reminded them of then-fashionable Bauhaus modernist furniture. Not all Ming furniture is so streamlined, and the current collection includes some more ornate items, too. However, it was Miesian understated beauty and meticulous construction that first caught the eye of Robert Burton, founder of the Fellowship of Friends, when he came across a pair of 18th-century zitan chairs in a Paris shop in 1987.

The Fellowship is a nonprofit organization formed around the idea that art elevates the spirit. In 1989 the Friends decided to sell off their small collection of Old Masters and start collecting classical Chinese furniture instead. A year later they opened their museum. From the beginning, their aim was to find the best example possible in each category and in different types of materials and styles.

Then last year the Friends decided to move on to new projects, selling the collection to a Chinese collector, and it is this anonymous collector who has placed the lot at Christie's. On the lower end of estimates are accessories such as an 18th-century hongmu (padauk wood) brushpot for an estimated $1,000 to $1,500 and a 17th-century washbasin stand for $5,000 to $7,000. At the upper end are two carved huanghuali standing screens in prime condition -- one in 12 folding sections, the other a rare combination of a marble panel in a large huanghuali frame, both in the $350,000 to $450,000 range.

Theow-Huang Tow, senior director of Christie's Chinese art department in New York, says, "Chinese furniture has been the orphan in the collecting field. As other areas such as porcelain and painting get more expensive, people turn to furniture." In recent years, more and more Asian collectors have discovered this area, and Mr. Tow predicts a sizable Asian turnout for the auction.

Ms. Cheng is a Hong Kong-based writer.

Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc Sep 19, 1996

Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture featured in International Herald Tribune

[ed. - This is an Internet Archive capture of the Fellowship webpage. It is odd that the Fellowship would feature this article, as it suggests that Burton was swindled when liquidating the museum. The closing quote points to the likely reason for the sudden "deaccessioning": to pay the costs of settling the lawsuit brought against Burton by Troy Buzbee.]

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An introduction
Worldwide centres
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Further reading
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Press archive
International Herald Tribune 1996
NEW YORK - Many strange stories can be heard in the small world revolving around the art market. But none quite matches that of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture collection scattered to the winds at Christie’s when its 107 lots sold for an aggregate $11.2 million, lifting Chinese Ming furniture as a whole to unheard of heights. Its improbable beginnings go back to the mid-1970s when a schoolteacher called Robert Burton founded a spiritual community, the Fellowship of Friends, in Oregon House, in Northern California. According to Curtis Evarts, curator of the defunct museum who became a member in 1975, its aim was “the spiritual enhancement of the individual parts through a system of psychological development, ” inspired by the writings of George Gurdjieff and Piotr Ouspensky.

One of the basic tenets of the psychological system, Evarts says, “is to bring refinement to the moment. ” Hence the attention they brought to “the dining experience. ”

One thing leading to another, a large collection of 18th-century porcelain was built up at the instigation of Burton, followed by silver plate. Eventually, both collections were sold off.
Burton then turned to Old Masters. Some very substantial pictures were bought, including such works as a “stable scene ” by Terborch now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, “Jesus as the Man of Sorrows ” by Morales, or the portrait of Countess Kaganek painted in 1792 by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. The Old Masters, too, were resold in order, Evarts says, to release funds for the acquisition of Chinese furniture.

This abrupt change of orientation came about as the community remodeled the Renaissance, California, vineyard house in which it had its headquarters. French domestic architecture of the Louis XVI period served as a model. In order to match the 18th-century whiff of the interior design, they bought porcelain commissioned to Chinese manufacturers by 18th-century French merchants, the so-called “Compagnie des Indes ” or “China Trade ” porcelain.

Burton was looking for porcelain in 1987 when he walked into a Paris shop and caught sight of two Chinese armchairs. Burton who, by all accounts, has a remarkably good eye, was struck by the beauty of the smooth linear structure and the toned wood with purplish hues called zitan. After consultations with the board of directors of the Fellowship of Friends, Evarts assures, Burton bought them and took them back to Oregon House.

The armchairs, which they later found out were of the 18th century, were greatly admired. Evarts, who was running the architectural workshop producing the interior designs for the Neoclassical decor in progress, was ecstatic. It was decided that a matching table was needed. One was found.

Burton, the born art hunter, began to look hard for Chinese pieces. He bought a wonderful 17th-century carved table in Jichimu wood, which sold at Christie’s on Thursday for $44,750.
Enthusiasm grew rapidly within the Fellowship. Evarts, in earlier days, had mastered the skills of joinery after dropping out of school (he could not bear the tedium of his engineering studies). He became fascinated. He restored the furniture and gazed at it at length in the studio where he directed the photography required by the installation of the works of art for which he was responsible.

It was decided to set up a Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture. In January 1990, Burton asked Evarts if he would consider becoming the curator of the collection in the making. He would, indeed.

Whereupon, Burton dispatched him on a world tour of museums holding significant groups of Chinese furniture - the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan, the Boston Museum of Fine Art in America, the Victoria & Albert Museum and British Museum in London, and a few more. Evarts returned with a rich store of visual and tactile knowledge and proceeded to learn Chinese in order to gain direct access to literary sources.

The Fellowship of Friends was dead serious about its Chinese collection. A Classical Chinese Furniture Society was founded in 1990 and a quarterly Journal of the Classical Furniture Society launched in the winter of 1990. Over the next four and a half years, pioneering research work was published in the superbly laid-out magazine, illustrated with outstanding photography - it was the first and only one of its kind in the Western world.

The systematic buying campaign entrusted to Evarts began.

Part of it was inevitably a process of learning through trial and error. The Fellowship of Friends probably acquired three times as many pieces as the 107 lots included in Thursday’s sale. The timing was good. A relatively large amount of the Ming furniture that had escaped the destruction of the Cultural Revolution tumbled on to the Western market between 1990 and 1993.

One of the first acquisitions made by Evarts was a pair of 17th-century drum stools in the hard wood called huanghuali. Often seen in woodcuts and hand scrolls of the period, few such stools have survived. Evarts had some qualms when he found the first stool in Hong Kong, but felt reassured by a technical detail when he succeeded in finding the second piece in the pair a year later. His craftsman’s instinct had served him in good stead. Estimated to be worth $30,000 to $50,000 in Christie’s catalogue, the pair soared to $190,000 - $211,500 with the sale premiums.

Soon after, he laid hands on a table with low cabriole legs, also of the 17th century. On Thursday the table exceeded by half its high estimate as it brought $51,750.

But all that pales into insignificance by comparison with the large screen on stand carved with openwork panels to serve as a monumental frame for a marble slab - the natural veins of the marble suggest a mountainous landscape.

Again, while the type of screen can be seen in hand scrolls, set behind the seats of dignitaries, only one other example is known to survive, in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Evarts at first received photos of the dismantled panels, with accompanying dimensions. He made drawings which he assembled to have an idea of its appearance. The screen looked fabulous. Evarts flew out to Hong Kong where the splendor of the carving confirmed his first impression. The Fellowship rallied to his views.

So did the New York attendance on Thursday. At $1.1 million, the screen has become the most expensive piece of Chinese furniture in the world. It will shortly grace the Minneapolis Institute of Art through the generosity of a benefactor of many years, Bruce Dayton.

For Evarts, the Chinese furniture saga should have culminated with the exhibition of Chinese Classical Furniture held from June 1995 to March 1996 in the Pacific Heritage Museum in San Francisco.

It was accompanied by a catalogue that will stand as a reference book for years to come. Written jointly by Evarts and the great Beijing scholar Wang Shixiang, now in his 80s, the catalogue is referred to throughout in the Christie’s sale catalogue.

Alas, in 1994, the Fellowship, advised by Burton, decided to part with the collection in order to switch to French decorative art. The journal abruptly ceased publication in the winter of 1994. A planned exhibition project at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Washington had to be dropped after the decision to proceed with the sale became known.

Mysteriously, trade sources report, a Taiwanese businessman called Johnny Chen appeared, bought the collection en bloc, and consigned it to Christie’s. The estimate given by Christie’s before the sale, $6 million to $8 million, implies that Chen’s investment was $6 million at the most. The difference with the end result primarily reflects the phenomenal marketing campaign conducted by Christie’s.

The Far East, they say, is good at learning fast. It apparently excels at playing the Western art market.

But of the two, it is the Western party that comes out as the most inscrutable. Bets are still open on the real reasons that led to the sale of the delightful, if short lived, “museum” collection.

Souren Melikian

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Tuesday, September 17, 1996

A cult for Chinese furniture

[ed. - Sourced from proquest.com.]
A cult for Chinese furniture: Susan Moore on the controversial sect behind Christie's New York sale on Thursday
By Susan Moore
Financial Times [London (UK)]
17 Sep 1996

Leaders of esoteric sects are usually thought to have a penchant for apocalyptic predictions and expensive motor cars and for exploiting - sexually and financially - their brainwashed acolytes. They are not generally known for amassing museum-quality art collections, cultivating award-winning dessert wines or staging productions of Sophocles.

But Robert Burton, who founded Renaissance, a community in the remote and unpromisingly scrubby foothills of the Sierra Nevada, appears to be no ordinary esoteric guru. Burton, a former Bay Area elementary school teacher, founded the Fellowship of Friends in 1970. It is a non-proselytising, publicity-shy sect and its spiritual or philosophical system is difficult to determine, but Burton is known to have steeped himself in the writing of the Russian-Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff and his disciple Peter Ouspensky, whose works have shaped the modern human potential movement. [ed. - Burton has told those close to him he never read Gurdjieff''s works.]

Gurdjieff and Ouspensky maintained that man needs to keep focused on his higher goals, spiritual and cultural, to awaken his true consciousness. For Burton, this involves concerning himself with music and the arts, good food and wine at Renaissance, one and a half hours north of Sacramento.

The fellowship's members - reputedly some 1,500 worldwide - are predominantly affluent and middle-class. They pay a "tithe" of 10 per cent of their incomes and are "awakened" by working in the fellowship's 365-acres of terraced vineyards, its gardens and its wood, print and auto shops. In their spare time they study art and literature in the libraries of Renaissance's Goethe Academy - a mock French chateau surrounded by formal gardens designed and built, of course, by fellowship members.

Some 30 full-time residents are housed in the Court of the Caravans - 25 sun-dazzled aluminium Airstream trailers. Another 250-300 members live off-site locally. Burton's Renaissance home is a 3,000 sq ft house designed by Aaron Green, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, and built for the guru by the fellowship.

In the late 1970s Burton began collecting Old Master paintings, ranging from a 15th-century cassone or marriage-chest panel by the Florentine Jacopo de Sellajo to still-lifes by Osias Beert the Elder and, possibly, Caravaggio. Then, in Paris in 1988, he saw two typically spare, minimalist Qing-period Chinese armchairs in the Ming style and the direction of the fellowship's collecting changed in a revelatory flash.

"I immediately recognised that this furniture was second to none," he said. "Both in its serene beauty and its intelligent design, which combine to evoke a contemplative state of mind in those who behold it."

At the height of the market the Old Masters were sold off at significant profit - a pair of 17th-century biblical scenes by Bernardo Cavallino fetched almost $2m at Sotheby's New York in 1989. Dispersed, too, was the collection of Chinese ceramics. With the proceeds, Burton began to acquire 17th and 18th-century Chinese classical furniture. "It was", says London-based Chinese furniture dealer Nicholas Grindley, "a very good time to buy."

Burton bought heavily from Damon Spilios, of Florida dealers Ming Furniture, who certainly believed that classical Chinese furniture was undervalued. Burton also made significant purchases from Hong Kong dealers Grace Wu Bruce and Chan Shang Kee.

As with anyone building a collection on whim with little or no knowledge, mistakes were made. The initial group of 300 or so pieces was gradually refined down to just over 100. Curtis Evarts rose through the ranks of fellowship members to became its self-taught curator.

Grindley now rates Evarts "as good a judge of Chinese furniture as anyone in the world." In less than a decade the collection established itself as the world's pre-eminent holding, public or private, now known as the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture and housed in the Goethe Academy and Burton's house, and open to the public by appointment.

Burton's intention was to construct a purpose-built museum on site and he commissioned designs from a leading Beijing architect. It seems that he failed to raise the funds. Last year the collection went on show for nine months at the Pacific Heritage Museum in San Francisco.

There were also rumours that it was for sale - at a reputed initial asking price of $25m. A number of people tried to negotiate its purchase either whole or piecemeal. Instead it was sent to Christie's New York, its consignor not the Fellowship of Friends but Johnny Chen, scion of an established Taiwanese family who is based partly on the West Coast.

Robert Burton is now said to be interested in moving into 19th-century French Salon painting and antiquities, and to be concentrating the fellowship's resources on its wine production, which has already absorbed about $10m of funds. There were also allegations that some members had withdrawn payment of their tithes.

A whiff of sensation follows the furniture to Christie's on Thursday. What makes the auction so exceptional is not only the quality and rarity of the top lots and the near encyclopaedic range of the collection but the fact that the market for Chinese furniture has hitherto been dominated by some half-dozen dealers worldwide. Rather like Chinese antiquities, relatively few pieces come to the west with any provenance.

If the collection is sold on its published estimates, and raises $6m-$8m, the pieces will probably be sold for less than the fellowship paid for them. The scenario, as anticipated by auction house and dealers is that a whole new price structure for classical Chinese furniture will be established, with auction records broken as much as seven or eight times over.

The current auction record for a piece comparable to anything in this collection is for a huanghuali folding horseshoe chair which fetched $176,000 at Sotheby's New York in 1990; the Christie's chair is rarer and finer, and comes with an estimate of $300,000-$400,000. The auction record for any piece, set at Christie's Hong Kong in 1992, is $250,000. If the sale is a success, private individuals and the trade might well start consigning important pieces to the auction-houses.

No doubt the eight or nine exceptional lots will go to established collectors, primarily in the US and the Far East - and go way over estimate, not least because the supply of good pieces seems to be drying up. As one dealer put it: "One would have to say to a client: 'this is your one and only chance. Bid till you run out of courage.' The majority of pieces, however, will probably be bought by people who we have never seen before and will never see again."

Copyright Financial Times Limited 1996

Copyright F.T. Business Enterprises Limited (FTBE) Sep 17, 1996


"Robert C" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 1, 2007:

434 brucelevy

Indeed I was there, through the early 80s. I was certainly not as aware as you were of the nuance, being a little naive about such things, but there was plenty that set off my bullshit detector, and towards the end my eyebrows were in a state of almost continuous ‘raisedness’.

Certainly I saw that either a) some sweet young thing, or b) some wealthy person, would appear and be instantly swept into the ‘inner circle’. This just stank to me. This was supposed to be a conscious school, and how in the world would that fit in? It didn’t inspire further confidence that the wealthy persons would not infrequently bail from the Fellowship with no advanced warning. Decidedly curious.

Then there were the requests for gifts for our ‘beloved teacher’. Those requests were not nearly as nauseating as the great example posted above (419 Purchasing Awakening) concerning the purchase of Abundance, but still they were setting me off.

Finally I tilted at the Ming furniture donation. Here the people on salary at then Renaissance were living in relative poverty in inadequate housing while working their asses off and being underpaid, and what we were raising money for was incredibly expensive Ming furniture for a present for our teacher? And of course there was always the unspoken implication that if you were not generous it meant that you did not value the school or the teacher or your work enough.

Of course the general explanation/excuse for this sort of nonsense was that it was for the civilization, the ark, that we were creating. But what decent civilization would not take care of the people who needed taking care of most.

To my eye, there is just no getting around the fact that if you observe the behavior of Robert Burton carefully, you will see that he is acting in the interest of none other than Robert Burton, and that the bizarre behavior he exhibits can be explained best by unrestrained monomaniacal greed. No reason to beat around the bush on this.

And I say to you, dear reader who might still be in the Fellowship, don’t refuse to look, and buffer by thinking I am just being negative. Look for yourself. The path to awakening must come through our own experience. It cannot come through believing what others say.