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, 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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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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© Copyright Fellowship of Friends 1999 - All rights reserved.


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.

Sunday, September 15, 1996

Art Market: Zen and the art of furniture

[ed. - Sourced from proquest.com.]
By Norman, Geraldine.
The Independent [London (UK)]
15 Sep 1996

Abstract (summary)

There are many motivations for buying art but the Fellowship of Friends in California has found one of the most bizarre. The Fellowship, a religious-philosophic sect, began collecting to enhance "the dining experience" - an approach it uses for the realisation of higher levels of consciousness, in which delicious food and wine are consumed in a refined environment.

But in 1988 cult leader, Robert Burton, saw a Chinese hardwood chair in a Paris antique shop and fell in love with it. Thereafter, Chinese furniture became an obsession for the sect. Between 1988 when it bought its first piece and 1995 when it sold the collection, the Fellowship amassed about 250 items of 17th and 18th century hardwood furniture, then weeded out the fakes leaving a total of 100. Then, in 1995, the Fellowship sold it all to Johnny Chen, a Taiwanese businessman, reputedly for over $10m. The collection is regarded, by museums and dealers alike, as the finest in private hands anywhere in the world. Chen has now taken the lot to Christie's which will auction it in New York on September 19. A slew of auction price records are expected.

Burton, 57, founded the Fellowship in 1970. He had been a school teacher and a professional tennis player before becoming involved in spiritual matters. His Fellowship is based on the teachings of George Gurdjieff (1877-1949), a Russian-Armenian mystic who settled in France in 1922 and taught methods of achieving self-realisation through physical and mental work. In his latter years, Gurdjieff used to cook exquisite oriental meals and serve them with lots of vodka to selected friends - apparently as a sort of shock treatment to achieve a sudden awakening. The Fellowship of Friends has latched onto this idea and expanded it in its own way.

Full Text

A cult's collection of Chinese furniture set to break auction records, or is it all in the mind? Geraldine Norman investigates

There are many motivations for buying art but the Fellowship of Friends in California has found one of the most bizarre. The Fellowship, a religious-philosophic sect, began collecting to enhance "the dining experience" - an approach it uses for the realisation of higher levels of consciousness, in which delicious food and wine are consumed in a refined environment.

The sect started with 18th century silver, including soup tureens and other feeding utensils, fine Meissen and oriental porcelains to eat off, and antique glass to drink from. Then, it turned its attention to the dining environment, buying French 18th century furniture and Old Master paintings.

But in 1988 cult leader, Robert Burton, saw a Chinese hardwood chair in a Paris antique shop and fell in love with it. Thereafter, Chinese furniture became an obsession for the sect. Between 1988 when it bought its first piece and 1995 when it sold the collection, the Fellowship amassed about 250 items of 17th and 18th century hardwood furniture, then weeded out the fakes leaving a total of 100. Then, in 1995, the Fellowship sold it all to Johnny Chen, a Taiwanese businessman, reputedly for over $10m. The collection is regarded, by museums and dealers alike, as the finest in private hands anywhere in the world. Chen has now taken the lot to Christie's which will auction it in New York on September 19. A slew of auction price records are expected.

Burton, 57, founded the Fellowship in 1970. He had been a school teacher and a professional tennis player before becoming involved in spiritual matters. His Fellowship is based on the teachings of George Gurdjieff (1877-1949), a Russian-Armenian mystic who settled in France in 1922 and taught methods of achieving self-realisation through physical and mental work. In his latter years, Gurdjieff used to cook exquisite oriental meals and serve them with lots of vodka to selected friends - apparently as a sort of shock treatment to achieve a sudden awakening. The Fellowship of Friends has latched onto this idea and expanded it in its own way.

Members of the Fellowship, mostly self-made professionals, contribute 10 per cent of their income to its support. The group owns 1,400 hilly acres of northern California and has established a vineyard there - the members terraced the hillside and planted the vines. There is also a Louis XVI-style chateau, surrounded by formal gardens, where the dining takes place and where the art collection has been displayed. The sect has its own orchestra, ballet troupe, opera and drama groups.

As with most spiritual sects, there have been well-publicised allegations that the Fellowship is fleecing its members, and hints at sexual antics - but it continues to flourish.

Not unnaturally, it mystifies the art market. The collections are bought and sold. "Is this an investment strategy?" art dealers ask - without receiving any reply. There was a good silver collection which has gone; the Old Masters were sufficiently distinguished to be written up in the leading art magazine Apollo, and have gone as well; a Gerard ter Borch Stable Scene went to the Getty Museum; a pair of naughty Cavallino's, Lot and his Daughters and The Drunkenness of Noah, topped pounds 1m at Sotheby's in January 1989. And the biggest collection of all, the Chinese furniture, has been sold en bloc.

"We are now going back to western decorative arts," Curtis Evarts, curator of the Chinese collection, told me. "Presently, the collecting is tending more towards the French 18th century. We have even bought back some of our former Old Master collection."

The Old Masters were sold to finance the spending spree on Chinese furniture. The reasons for selling the furniture are more obscure. They include the fact that the winery needed an injection of capital, Evarts says. "It was sad to see it go because it was a fine collection. But you have to learn about separation. Each one of us will have to separate from our lives at some point."

The first stop on the collection's voyage of separation was an exhibition at the Pacific Heritage Museum in San Francisco in April 1995 - the sale went through in September. In a foreword of the lavish exhibition catalogue, Robert Burton writes: "When I came upon my first pieces of classical Chinese furniture. . . I was astonished and disarmed. I immediately recognised that this furniture was second to none, both in its serene beauty and its intelligent design, which combine to evoke a contemplative state of mind in those who behold it. Yet this timeless art form had been almost completely neglected. It had become an endangered species, and the story it had to tell remained unheard - in Goethe's words: 'like some old tale that time but half erases'."

It is not, of course, quite true that no-one else had noticed the glories of Chinese hardwood furniture. The first western book on Chinese furniture, Les Meubles de la Chine by Odilon Roche, was published in 1922. In the 1970s, an influential New York dealer, Robert Ellsworth, set the keynote for western collecting when he published the book entitled Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch'ing Dynasties. But the Fellowship of Friends' determined buying has driven prices steeply upwards over the last five years, a lot of other rich Americans having recently got interested in the field.

The earliest known Chinese furniture dates back to the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th centuries BC) and has been found in tombs. The design of its platform seats, chairs, tables and chests gradually evolved over the centuries, and the forms were well established by the mid-16th century AD, when export restrictions into China were lifted and tropical hardwoods began to arrive in large quantities from central Asia. They allowed the combination of the powerful, simple forms that had already been developed, with richly-painted wood - particularly favoured were the light huanghuali or yellow rosewood, and the dark zitan or purple sandalwood.

The deceptive simplicity of these perfectly proportioned pieces appealed to western ex-pats living in China in the 1930s , who equated it with the new aesthetic doctrines of the Bauhaus, and began to collect enthusiastically. But there was not enough Chinese furniture in the West to make collecting easy, until the smuggling of art works out of China began in the 1980s. The Fellowship of Friends owed its extraordinary collection to the smuggling boom. After acquiring its first pieces in Europe and America, it concentrated most of its buying in Hong Kong.

Christie's expects the top price to be paid for an intricately carved huanghuali screen made to support a "dream stone" - a piece of natural marble with veining that suggests a mountainous river landscape. It dates from the 17th century and is estimated to fetch $350,000 to $450,000. Another star is a folding chair of around 1600 with elaborate iron mounts inlaid with silver. There are only three others in the world and this is thought to be the best - it is estimated at $300,000 to $400,000. The Fellowship's first purchase, a pair of zitan armchairs, made in an almost architectural design known as "southern official's hat", are estimated at $80,000 to $120,000.

There are brush pots, stools, scrollstands, tables, chairs and chests which are expected to range in price from $5,000 to $50,000. It will be the best ever auction of Chinese furniture and prices could go through the roof. However, the mystery purchaser, Johnny Chen, seems to have paid above current market levels for the collection. Dealers are nervous that he will be asking more than the cognoscenti deem it reasonable to pay, and that may mean some pieces will go unsold.

Christie's auction of the Chinese furniture collection will take place on 19 September in New York.

Copyright Newspaper Publishing Plc Sep 15, 1996