“The Fabric of Bhutan: Philanthropist Helps $500,000 Textile Collection Find Its Way Home”
Excerpted from Personal Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Karen Mazurkewich, 5 December 2002
(c) 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
The royal cupboard is no longer bare. In late October, a collection of 107 antique textiles, including some with royal origins, finally returned home: to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan where, through the 20th century, artisans had woven them on traditional looms . . .
In an August 2001 cover story, “Bhutan’s Lost Art,” Personal Journal reported that Bhutan’s then three-month-old textile museum had opened with a paltry collection. It contained just one piece with a royal pedigree. For years, unappreciated at home, valuable Bhutanese textiles had been trickling out of the country as Western collectors snapped up the intricate weaves, which mixed silk, cotton, acrylic and even nettle fibers into myriad colors and traditional patterns. As appreciation for the generally utilitarian items such as clothing and bedding grew in the West, they became highly desired collectibles many held by museums or private collectors prepared to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a single piece.
The Bhutanese government simply didn’t have that sort of money to buy back its country’s heritage.
But Frederik Paulsen did.
The executive chairman of the Swiss company Ferring Pharmaceuticals read Personal Journal’s 2001 article, which explained that two voracious American collectors had, between them, amassed some of Bhutan’s greatest textile prizes. One of those collectors was Barbara Adams, who, in the 1960s, had lived in Katmandu as a companion of Prince Basundhara of Nepal. The first textile she owned was a gift from the Queen Mother of Bhutan. After the prince died, Ms. Adams lived a more threadbare existence in Nepal but continued to collect textiles, once trading her stereo for a dazzling piece. Over the years, she amassed 300 pieces and, in 1984, published one of the first books on Bhutanese textiles.
After reading Personal Journal’s article, Ferring’s Frederik Paulsen swung into action. He contacted us requesting the address of Ms. Adams, who now divides her time between Katmandu and Washington, D.C. After the two met over Sunday brunch at the Four Seasons in Georgetown in July last year, Mr. Paulsen convinced her to sell most of her collection. He hadn’t seen a single piece. Last month, more than two years after Personal Journal’s article and more than a year since his meeting with Ms. Adams, Mr. Paulsen announced that he had paid $500,000 for her collection and that he had donated it to Bhutan’s National Textile Museum.
“I feel ecstatic about the fact that my collection has been purchased for the declared sole purpose of donating it to the textile museum in Bhutan,” said Ms. Adams this week from Katmandu. “I had been keeping the most important pieces intact as a collection because of my conviction that they belonged in a major museum…. In fact, had [Mr. Paulsen] not assured me that they would go back to Bhutan, I would probably never even have bothered to meet him. . . .”
After Ms. Adams and Mr. Paulsen met last year, the task of selecting and appraising the textiles fell to his agent, Krista Amason, and textile expert Diana Myers. Even though Ms. Adams was confined to a wheelchair at the time after a fall, she insisted on being present at the appraisal. “She was a formidable negotiator,” says Mr. Paulsen, who has long been interested in the tiny country sandwiched between Nepal and Tibet.
Although Mr. Paulsen has kept a few select pieces to hang in his Paris home, the bulk of the collection is now in the Thimphu museum. On display are about 20 of the pieces, including outstanding examples of early 20th-century kiras (women’s dresses), kishung (19th-century men’s tunics) and seven chagsi pangkheb ceremonial cloths.
“Culture is important for economic development,” Mr. Paulsen told Personal Journal on a recent business trip to Hong Kong. “I’d read about Bhutan and it seemed to be a developing country that was learning to take care of itself in a controlled manner, particularly its tourism industry. . .”
The textile purchase was Mr. Paulsen’s first foray into cultural charity. The Bhutanese government may well be hoping it’s not his last.
The world’s other great collection of Bhutanese textiles, including the mid-19th-century throne cover of Bhutan’s first king, is still in private hands-and for sale. The collection is owned by Marko Bartholomew, a Laos-based American who worked in Nepal in the 1970s as a silver jewelry maker. He built his collection by scavenging in markets in Nepal and northern India and trading hunting knives and cowboy hats for the textiles.
When Bhutan started to issue visas to foreigners in the 1980s, he quickly moved in to buy textiles directly from former royal servants who had been given pieces as “hand-me-downs.”
In the 2001 article Mr. Bartholomew was quoted as saying: “I was taking it right out from under their noses, out of the family coffers. I got the most important pieces in Bhutan’s history by trading with their servants.”
For some years, however, Mr. Bartholomew has been trying to offload his 300-piece collection, which he says is worth $2 million-to either one buyer, or to more than one by splitting up the collection. Over the years, he has negotiated with the Bhutanese government, but the sides have not been able to come to an agreement. He recently wrote to Mr. Paulsen suggesting the philanthropist buy the collection. “I could only assume that there had been some difficulty in contacting me, since, in all honesty, my collection is acknowledged by all those in the know to be the most distinctive, unique, and indeed priceless in the world, literally dwarfing all other collections in existence,” Mr. Bartholomew said in the letter.
The eclectic Mr. Paulsen however, may have moved on to other philanthropic pursuits. Mr. Bartholomew is still waiting for a reply to his letter.