Closure and dispersal looms for unique Butler Collection of Chinese porcelain

lr Butler Collection (27)The elegant and airy private museum in Mapperton, Dorset which houses The Butler Collection   Photo Paul Harris

The Butler Collection of Chinese porcelain is presently held in a large and well appointed private gallery in Dorset, in rural England. Just in case you are not aware of the fact, it is the world’s most important collection of 17th Century Chinese Porcelain, covering what is often referred to as ‘the Transitional period: that is to say, that particularly vibrant and interesting period between the Ming and the Qing dynasties. It was built up over 50 years by Sir Michael Butler, a senior diplomat, who left it to his 4 children when he died suddenly on Christmas Eve three years ago.

Today, however, that collection today appears to be doomed to a court-ordered extinction. On 20th July, 2016 the High Court in London ruled that his two eldest children, Caroline and James Butler, the petitioners in an acrimonious legal battle, have the right to remove 250 pieces from the purpose built museum thus destroying the 500-piece collection. The collection is internationally famous and draws scholars, students and art lovers from around the world. If the two elder siblings could be persuaded to let the Art Fund or another entity to buy them out, the two younger siblings, Katharine and Charles, have pledged to put their shares into a charitable foundation or other structure which preserves and endows the collection. The situation has been much complicated and compounded by the fact that the only communication between the two warring parties over the last few years has been via their respective solicitors.

lr Butler Collection (77) The £15 purchase by Sir Michael Butler which started it all . . . Photo Paul Harris

Sir Michael Butler began collecting Chinese 17th century ceramics in the 1960s, finding his first piece, a green wine pot (illustrated above), for just £15 with three other pieces thrown in.

‘He became fascinated by the 17th Century pieces, because he realised that was a period which had been overlooked,’ says daughter Katharine who has tirelessly looked after the collection in its own purpose-built museum for many years. ‘Traditional collectors were obsessed by the Imperial pieces, but Papa realised that at that time there was an explosion of creativity.’ This creativity derived from the chaos following the collapse of the Ming dynasty and its replacement by the northern Manchus who founded the Qing dynasty. It was a time of industry and energy.

lr Butler Collection (22) Section of the Museum devoted to High Transitional pieces. Photo Paul Harris

The High Court has ruled that the Collection must be divided between the four children and this is what will happen towards the end of September 2016. In a scenario straight from some Victorian penny-dreadful tragedy, the four siblings will gather at a Grade II-listed family country house seat in Mapperton, Dorset, close to the private museum, and begin the process of dividing up their father’s legacy, in direct contravention of Sir Michael’s dying wishes, which were that the collection should remain complete. Alas, however, the provisions he made were insufficiently clear in the documentation he left behind  . . .

And so, the High Court has decided that the collection must be physically dispersed to the four children of the family. ‘We’re supposed to take it in turns to decide on a piece and to keep on taking until there are none left,’ Katharine Butler says, ‘The act of doing that will be the most devastating experience of my life.’

lr Butler Collection (11)   Fighting for survival . . .  Katharine Butler with a piece from the Collection. Photo    Paul Harris

The View from Here

opinion hl

It seems unconscionable that this wonderful collection should be broken up and dispersed to the four winds, so to speak. Indubitably, this is the finest collection of 17th century transitional porcelain to be found anywhere in the world. As such, it represents a unique  resource, not just for existing scholars and collectors but for enthusiasts of the future.

It is often said that when families fall out the ensuing disputes count amongst the bitterest. For that reason, it is incumbent upon the owners of resources such as The Butler Collection to make very precise future provisions for their assets. Unfortunately, in this instance, Sir Michael Butler’s provisions were open to misinterpretation in the context of his own professed wishes. In some respects the provisions made were contradictory in essence and the judgement in Court was, some legal sources say, only to be expected. Unfortunately, the results of the judgement are, to put it mildly, very regrettable. It is to be hoped that some last minute accommodation or arrangement might be made which will keep this uniquecollection together and Katharine Butler is rightly pressing The Art Fund to get involved.

The value of the four individual parts of the collection is being put at up to £2m. each by commentators in the press. It is ironic that, as a complete collection, the value to a serious collector or institution would, we expect, be around twice this sum: we know Chinese investors who would pile in at such a price with a commitment to keep it whole, albeit in Beijing or Shanghai. Not only would the value of the collection be diminished in scholarly and heritage terms by its division, but also by application of available financial criteria. Not to mention the devastating effects on those involved.

An online petition is still available for signature if you sympathise with those of us who would like the Collection to remain in existence as a historical and cultural asset with the support of The Art Fund

lr Butler Collection (42)