TOWNSHEND — In a twist of fate, a father's inheritance gift has provided an unexpected windfall that will be put to very good use, and the full story is scheduled to be told by host Jamie Colby on Monday on the Fox Business Network's series "Strange Inheritance." Paul Weber of Townshend, a Leland & Gray High School math teacher, a B&B owner, and son of lawyer Bruce Weber, had always admired the pieces of Chinese art given to his dad in the 1970s as payment for legal services. At his father's passing, Weber inherited those pieces that included a jade Buddha and, a piece of particular interest, a gilt bronze, hardstone, and jade mounted table screen from the Qianlong period. The desk screen, used to block winds and drafts on desks, was originally estimated at $2,000. Weber had Lark Mason, renowned Asian art and antique expert at Sotheby's take a look at it. Mason estimated its value then to be around $10,000, but with great foresight he advised Weber to hang onto it and see if Asian art prices were to increase.
Pan forward to 2005. Weber and his wife, Sarah Messenger, were on a trip to Northern Tanzania as volunteers in Maasai teaching English through Mondo Challenge, a foundation that works with local communities to support education and livelihoods. There they met 7-year-old Leyeyo Kipamba. Kipamba, whose dad had died from a black mambo snake bite, lived with his mom, and his sister in poverty, starving, and without simple amenities that we take for granted. Although Kipamba was going to school, the education system in Maasai lacked books and tools for a good education. Kipamba knew that Weber and Messenger presented the opportunity for a better life, and the couple, falling in love with the boy, recognized his drive and determination. So with permission from his mother, they brought him back to Vermont on an education visa.
An education visa requires the child be placed in a private school – an expensive proposition – that up until now has been mostly covered by Messenger's inheritance from her dad. Weber and Messenger have since adopted Kipamba, and though he has adapted well to life in the states and doesn't take for granted the opportunities life here has given him, he has never forgotten his homeland. Kipamaba and his adoptive parents travel to Maasai every summer for six weeks where the couple continues to volunteer their time in different capacities and Kipamba reconnects with his mom and childhood friends. As a testament to the character of this young man, last year Kipamba raised funds and brought three long-time friends, Evan Ray, Devin Hogan, and Rudi Gohl to his home town and together they built his mom a concrete house complete with plumbing. He is an inspiration to his tribal village.
Now Kipamaba is a teenager and a senior at Vermont Academy; college is on the horizon, and Weber and Messenger pondered how to pay for it. They again called upon Mason, now an independent appraiser, to take another look at the table screen and the jade Buddha. In recent years many Chinese citizens have gained considerable wealth and there has been a huge movement to buy Chinese art back and bring it home. In further investigation, Mason discovers the table screen may have been commissioned by Emperor Qianlong, one of the most revered leaders in Chinese history, and he suspects the screen could fetch up to $90,000 at auction.
Thrilled that this would be a huge boon to their son's education fund, Weber and Messenger commissioned Mason to place the table screen on an online auction. A starting bid of $40,000 was established, and they waited. And waited. In a nail-biting last minute drama with bidding finally finishing at a whopping $250,000! Although commissions, auction fees and art taxes are taking substantial chunks out of the total, Messenger said she is quite happy that Kipamba's education is secured as the remaining funds will cover most of the college costs. She adds that Weber's dad would be ecstatic to know his inheritance is going toward education.
Fox Business' "Strange Inheritance" show that chronicles unusual stories of inheritance, will air this unusual inheritance story hosted by Jamie Colby on Monday, at 9 p.m. According to the www.foxbusiness.com, the show may be found on channels 133 and 791 for Comcast cable viewers, Channel 28 for Southern Vermont Cable Co. cable viewers and channels 206 and 359 for satellite tv viewers.