It was the finest collection of 17th-century Chinese porcelain anywhere in the world. But Sir Michael Butler’s beloved hoard of late Ming and early Qing pots also proved to be a multimillion-pound bomb at the heart of his family – detonating immediately after the patriarch’s death and shattering the clan’s relationships into tiny pieces.
Sir Michael, who became Britain’s permanent representative in Brussels and a key adviser to Margaret Thatcher, began “pot hunting” in 1961, when he was a diplomat at the Foreign Office.
By the end of his life, he had amassed 850 pieces, thought to be worth over £8 million, and had put the deeply unfashionable Transitional Period of Chinese ceramics on the map. So prized was his collection that he turned a squash court behind his grand house in Mapperton, Dorset, into a 350 sq m, seven-room museum that became a magnet for global collectors and curators.
However, just a month after his funeral in 2014, his two youngest children, Charles, now 56, and Katharine, 55, began receiving “a barrage” of legal letters from their sister and brother, Caroline, 70, and James, 57. The eldest pair wanted to claim their quarter shares of the pots, but the youngest were determined to honour their father’s wishes and keep his legacy intact.
Previously, Sir Michael had invited all four children to join a partnership that would control part of the collection, on the condition that all the items be kept together for at least 10 years after his death. The elder siblings declined the offer, which left the younger pair to take on their curatorial role.
It culminated in a very public slanging match in the High Court that hinged on case law barely used since 1925 – one dispute had involved a family fighting over a three-piece suite. Charles and Katharine lost the case, and were left paying 80 per cent of the legal fees, which totalled £1 million. The three UK-based siblings (Charles lives in Prague) also had to pay a hefty capital gains tax bill on top when the collection was divided up during agonising turn-taking in the museum, an event Katharine described as “the most devastating moment of my life”.
The brother and sister now accept it was “a stupid thing to do” to allow the case to go to court. Charles admits he thought they would probably lose, but felt they had to do the “reasonable maximum” to try to prevent the “cultural vandalism”. Katharine says the lawyers “made both sides feel thoroughly outraged and willing to speed onwards”.
And she says that their father – a consummate negotiator, who secured Britain’s 1984 European Community’s budget rebate – “would have been utterly disgusted and disappointed with us because he was someone who really believed in compromise. That we should end up like this is desperate.”
But that was not the end of the story. The younger brother and sister were determined to see a phoenix rise from the ashes, and have been slowly filling in the gaps with auction purchases from around the world. When I visited the museum in 2017, it appeared to have been ransacked, with half of the shelves sitting bare.
Now it is “looking really sensational”, says Katharine, and finally being officially reopened on December 14 (the “Family” having been pointedly removed from the sign that once read “Butler Family Collection”). The legal drama only served to boost its reputation and it is still the largest group of its kind on the planet. Katharine will be giving monthly private tours for a £5 deposit, which can be redeemed as a discount on her book about the ceramics, Leaping The Dragon Gate. There is no glass, and visitors can handle any priceless pot they want.
The period – between the closing of the imperial kilns in 1608, after the Ming dynasty had been bankrupted by civil war, and their reopening 73 years later – saw an eruption of Thatcherite-style free enterprise and creativity. Released from the constraints of the court, the potters and painters of the porcelain capital of Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi province, experimented with new styles, shapes, glazes and narrative scenes. Katharine was thrilled recently to discover a fingerprint on one of their most important pots, which revealed the horse had been painted using the artist’s thumb. “It’s absolutely amazing,” she enthuses. “A few weeks ago, I had the Chinese curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who especially came down to Dorset. And he was so moved by seeing that.”
Yesterday, Charles and Katharine added another 20 pieces to the collection – by buying them back from their brother James. In a sign of the low ebb their relationship has reached, the duo had to do so on the open market, via Christie’s in Hong Kong, where 60 of James’s pots sold for £2.3 million. They were outbid on the most expensive item, a rare copper-red dragon vase that went for almost £650,000, five times its upper estimate (Sir Michael got it for just £325 in 1968). Katharine says she burst into tears when they won a pot her father had loved, a large blue-and-white Shunzhi sleeve vase with naturalistic painting of three birds at play on blossoming flower branches.
But the sale meant the pair had to stump up extra tax shipping and import charges, auction house commission and the premium now commanded for any pots owned by their father – even though they say they have spent years offering to buy directly from their brother and sister at above market rate.
“So, in all respects, it’s ridiculous,” says Katharine. “The pots were a proxy for other jealousies or failed relationships,” she admits. Indeed, “Butler and Butler v Butler and Butler” aired the family’s dirty laundry. An email Caroline had sent to Katharine shortly before Sir Michael’s death was read out in court. It said: “I’m not sure you ever came to terms with the fact that your own father does not love you and prefers 800 pots.” The case also exposed Caroline’s anger over her father’s extramarital affairs.
The Hong Kong auction took place just a day after the funeral of the Butlers’ mother. Though Ann Ross Skinner had sided with the younger two during the court case – sitting alongside them doing her embroidery – she told me five years ago that the dispute had been “an absolute disaster”, and advised other families not to leave their legacy planning up to chance, warning: “Never assume your children are going to behave like normal human beings.”
If the museum can have a Lazarus-like resurrection, perhaps there is still hope for the siblings. After the judge’s verdict was handed down in 2016, Charles told me despairingly: “There is no family as dysfunctional as ours in the history of English law.”
He now says he deeply regrets that the feud has spread to Sir Michael’s grandchildren, who no longer have a relationship. “How long can you be angry for, really?” he asks, before adding that the mistake they made early on was not to take “a longer view”, even if it means relying on the next generation to restore the collection that had been broken up by their parents.
Katharine and Charles are also offering the buyers of the 40 pots they did not win at Christie’s the choice to store their purchases at the Dorset museum. (Among them is the £74,000 jar they call the “tot pot” because it used to perfectly accommodate Charles’s son when he was one).
Their mother periodically referred to the vases, bowls and jars as “those bloody pots”. Is there not a part of them that sees the collection as a poisoned chalice that they wish had never come into the family?
“It’s a good question,” says Charles, laughing heartily. But he insists their overriding feeling is one of “undiminished” pride at their father’s cultural achievement. “It does represent a sort of monument to him.”
As Katharine says, beaming: “There’s no question – he’s the rock star of 17th-century Chinese porcelain.”
To book a place on a tour of the museum from Dec 14, visit butlercollection.com