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 an ominous, yet unspecified new threat late in 2018.) While non-believers shall perish, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (including his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci) Burton and his followers will 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 (former) Fellowship Wikipedia page, the long-running Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the Internet Archive, the (former) Fellowship of Friends wiki project, 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.

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


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

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