- Children of the late Sir Michael Butler fight over £8million Ming collection
- Siblings James, Katharine, Charles and Caroline talked via lawyers
- Katharine and Charles fought to keep Dorset museum collection together
- But Caroline and James fought to be allowed to remove their shares
- The haul was collected over 50 years and is sought after by collectors
To art dealers, it is a unique £8 million assortment of rare ceramics that rich Chinese collectors would be desperate to acquire.
To scholars, the 500 gleaming bowls and vases make up the world's most important collection of 17th Century Chinese porcelain, a priceless cultural legacy.
But for the children of the late Sir Michael Butler, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, the late Ming Chinese pieces he spent 50 years collecting are a source of pride – and anguish.
One of the siblings, Katharine Butler, with the collection of her late father, Sir Michael Butler
For six years, Katharine Butler, 48, and her brother Charles, 49, have been locked in battle to keep the collection intact while Caroline, 62, and James, 50, fight through the courts to remove their share from the private family museum in Dorset.
Such is the bitterness engendered, younger and elder siblings communicate only via legal letters. The case has dragged damaging secrets out into the light, including allegations of Sir Michael's marital infidelity and his supposed financial favouritism towards his younger offspring.
In one corrosive email disclosed in court, it was claimed that Sir Michael was more interested in his vases than his children. Now, The Mail on Sunday has established that it is the elder siblings who have prevailed. On Thursday, Judge Simon Barker QC ruled in favour of Caroline and James, saying the Butler Family Collection will indeed be divided, leaving Katharine and Charles distraught.
As Katharine puts it, she is heartbroken. 'It's a cultural tragedy,' she says, poised and articulate as you might expect from the daughter of a diplomat, but visibly distressed. 'The world's best collection of Chinese porcelain from that era will be broken up and dispersed, when our father made it very clear he wanted it kept together.
'For me, the pieces aren't just pots – they represent my father's extraordinary achievement. He created the collection meticulously over 50 years.'
Each of the siblings will be entitled to choose 125 pieces, a legacy worth £1 million, although the elder two insist they are not motivated by money.
'I can't understand why my brother and sister think it's OK not to have talked to us in two years, to disregard my father's wishes and to break up a collection which has such cultural and academic importance,' says Katharine.
'I'm particularly confused about why James has taken this position. I find it difficult to believe he wants to keep 125 pieces of porcelain in his house.'
Of Caroline, who, ironically, is a trustee of the Art Fund, a charity which works to keep collections intact and in Britain, Katharine says: 'There are many phases of grief and I think my sister is stuck in the angry stage. I'm very sad they won't communicate with us. I think both of them got carried away with the litigation. They became more and more rigid in their position as the time – and costs – went by.
The Butlers' situation is as rare as the porcelain at issue, but at its core is a story which is sadly familiar – as tensions and rivalries ignite following the death of a parent. Katharine believes her father, who died in 2013, would be devastated by the court ruling and by the animosity between his children. Their mother, Ann Ross Skinner, is also understandably distraught. She has supported her two youngest children's bid to keep the collection together and sat by Katharine's side in court.
Caroline Butler outside London's High Court during the court battle over the collect ion
Sir Michael amassed the collection in his five decades travelling the world as a diplomat, during which his most celebrated moment was securing the famous European Community budget rebate for Mrs Thatcher in 1984.
Sitting in the museum which houses these remarkable pieces, a place where she spent many hours with her father towards the end of his life, Katharine chooses her words carefully when describing her relationship with her elder siblings during their childhood.
'My sister Caroline is 14 years older than me, so James, Charles and I were brought up quite separately from her,' she says. 'We all rubbed along pretty well, but we didn't spend an awful lot of time together.'
After moving from country to country because of their father's career, the family returned to live in London in th e 1970s. Weekends were spent at the house their grandfather had bought in the Dorset countryside. 'It was a very happy childhood,' she says. Inspired by her father, Katharine studied art history at university before entering the business world. She and her brother Charles both moved to the Czech Republic, where they achieved great success. She created a sportswear brand and opened a large toy shop in the centre of Prague, while Charles started what became the country's largest electronic retailer.
In 1997, when Katharine was 30, her parents separated following Sir Michael's alleged affair. In court, Charles and Katharine's barrister claimed that Caroline, now a highly successful investment adviser, was never able to forgive her father, and even wrote letters to his then colleagues about the betrayal – letters the barrister claimed Sir Michael believed were so damaging to his reputation they 'cost him his peerage'.< /p>
'Caroline had had a close relationship with my father and she was upset about it,' says Katharine. 'None of us were pleased. There was a very bumpy year or so for us all, but Charles and I forgave him, and he and my mother remained on very good terms.'
Her father had begun collecting the ceramics in the 1960s, finding his first piece, a green wine pot, 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 Katharine. 'Traditional collectors were obsessed by the Imperial pieces, but Papa realised at that time there was an explosion of creativity.'
The Ming dynasty was in chaos. Potters turned to new customers – merchants who asked for new, experimental shapes and colours.< /p>
She adds: 'Gradually, it became an obsession and they began to be exhibited at galleries around the world, including The Frick Collection in New York, the V&A and, eventually, the Shanghai Museum.'
Katharine wipes away tears as she plays a film of him talking about his prized possessions. 'He had a very personal relationship with the pots – he really did feel they were people,' she says. 'After they'd been exhibited in Shanghai, he felt they needed a home which reflected their grand status, rather than the sheds in the garden they'd been squashed into previously. He hired an architect to build a private museum, so scholars could visit, and it opened in 2009.'
In court, an email was read from Caroline to Katharine claiming that Sir Michael preferred the ceramics to his children, but Katharine insists: 'He wasn't a mad obsessive, who wasn't able to concentrate on anything apart from work and his collection. He was a very kind, reasonable man who always had time for his family.'
Katharine spent three summers creating an online catalogue of the collection for her father. 'I knew I would be forever regretful if I didn't try to learn all I could from him before he left us,' she says. 'The collection had been such a big part of my life growing up, so I felt it was a duty to help if I could.'
The family's current predicament has its roots in Sir Michael's decision in 1987 to make a gift of the best pieces from his 800-strong collection to his children. Over the next five years, he handed over 500 pieces, which were named the Butler Family Collection. 'The problem was that the gift didn't come with a contract stipulating what he wanted to happen to the collection,' says Katharine.
In 2010, the family began discussing what to do with the other 300 pieces. 'It became clear my sister had very different views from my father over what would happen to the Butler Family Collection in the future,' says Katharine. 'My father was 83 at that time, and he stated very clearly, in writing, he didn't want it broken up for at least ten years after his death. My sister was adamant that was unacceptable. There were many arguments.
James Butler outside the High Court in London during the case
'She insisted he should break it into four shares, and he said it would be impossible to make four collections which had any sort of cohesion. From that time until the end of my father's life, their relationship broke down. Of course, it soured my relationship with Caroline, although I didn't think it was the overriding factor in our relationship. And right up until my father's death, I had an excellent relationship with James.'
It was suggested in court that Caroline wanted to split up the collection in revenge for their father's adultery and supposed financial favouritism towards his younger children – something she denies. In a bid to keep the collection together, Sir Michael formed a partnership, of which he made the ceramics assets which could generate an income. Joining the partnership was dependent on agreeing to keep the collection intact for ten years after their father's death. James and Caroline refused, while Katharine and Charles began selling china cups decorated with patterns taken from the collection.
In the midst of all this acrimony, it is perhaps unsurprising that Sir Michael appointed Katharine and Charles executors of his will. 'In his letter of wishes, he stated again that he want ed the collection to be kept together,' says Katharine.
Sir Michael died on Christmas Eve, 2013. 'Charles and I got a letter from Caroline and James's lawyers three weeks after we buried him,' says Katharine. 'We were astonished. They've refused to speak to us ever since. We tried through every means possible to communicate with them, but all we got were legal letters. Their condition of any meeting was the division of the collection.'
Katharine says she and Charles have attempted to buy their siblings out, offering more than the market worth. They refused. In court, Caroline and James said they do not want money, only to keep their 125 pieces of porcelain at home, where they can enjoy them.
And so, in two months' time, comes a day that Katharine Butler is anticipating with dread. She and her three siblings will gather at Charles� �s house – the Grade II-listed family seat in Mapperton, Dorset, close to the private museum – and begin the process of dividing up her father's legacy.
'We're supposed to take it in turns to decide a piece to take until there are none left,' she says, shaking her head. 'The act of doing that will be the most devastating moment of my life. It's completely unimaginable.'
Katharine and Charles intend to appeal and start a petition to save a cultural treasure. 'We're also looking into seeing if an organisation like the Art Fund would be willing to buy out our siblings, so it could be visited by more people,' she says. 'We're happy to give over our pieces to preserve this for future generations.'
'Someone told me that we've lost the case, we should let it go,' she says sadly. 'He'd say they're only things. But they're not just things to me. They're my father's legacy.'
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