Art Market: Zen and the art of furniture

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

Geraldine Norman
Saturday 14 September 1996 23:02

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.

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