Introduction


Presented in reverse chronology, this history stretches from the present back to the Fellowship's 1970 founding, and beyond.
(See "Blog Archive" in the sidebar below.) It draws from many sources, including The Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the Internet Archive, the former Fellowship of Friends wiki project, cult education and awareness sites, news archives, and from the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship.

The portrait that emerges stands in stark contrast to sanitized versions presented on the Fellowship's array of
alluring websites, and on derivative sites created by Burton's now-estranged
disciple, Asaf Braverman.

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.

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