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.

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

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