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Pieces of the Past: A Collector on Ethical Collecting

I have enjoyed reading Robyn's "Pieces of the Past". There has been some frank discussion about the issues that has drawn some barbed comments. Robyn is sensible enough to recognise why archaeologists like Paul Barford, Nathan Elkins and even yours truly comment about recently surfaced antiquities:
To be clear, Mr. Barford, Mr. Elkins, and Mr. Gill are not anti-collecting. They are anti-LOOTING, none is opposed to collecting that is done responsibly and legally.
Readers of Looting Matters should read Robyn's intelligent response to the responsibilities of collecting.


David- You apparently agree with Robyn Cirulli that you are not "anti-collecting," just "anti-looting." In a prior exchange, Robyn appears to have admitted that she cannot trace the provenance of the Egyptian artifacts in her collection back to 1970. This is not surprising given that she apparently collects minor Egyptian artifacts that often don't have extensive provenance information attached to them. Are you ok with this? Or, should Robyn only collect artifacts that have a solid provenance at least back to 1970? You seem hung up on that 1970 date, so I thought I should check.


Peter Tompa
Bill Donovan said…
I tried to post a comment recently on "Pieces of the Past," but it hasn't been approved yet.

Robyn, by Robyn's own admission, is a US collector who has a private collection of Egyptian Antiquities. Do you approve of Robyn's collection of unprovenanced Egyptian artifacts?

Robyn's blog only has sidebar links to the blogs of archaeologists based in Europe (7/28/2009).
David Gill said…
I do not know the identity of Robyn - but you have obviously been spending time trying to find her identity. Robyn commented on the "anti-looting" position taken by me ("Looting Matters"), Barford and Elkins (among others). Robyn is thinking seriously about her own collecting policy - good for her, especially given the comments she has received on her blog.
You ask about the 1970 date. If you had read my academic work on this topic you would know that I have long used 1973 - but 1970 is the international benchmark (as you well know) and the date used (successfully) by the Italian government.
The issue is "recently surfaced" antiquities.
Talking of recently surfaced antiquities, would you like to comment on the origin (i.e. vendor) of the "unprovenanced" coins minted in Cyprus that the ACCG attempted to import through Baltimore Washington?
Best wishes
David Gill said…
You obviously have spent time trying to identify the identity of Robyn. But what we gain from her postings is a collector who is thinking seriously about the ethical issues. Is that a good thing?
And does it really matter in our cosmopolitan world if Robyn chooses to have European commentators in her blog roll?
Best wishes
There is a lot of talk on one side about "nationalistic" efforts to protect archaeological sites from looting. But at the same time there is a habit of some North American commentators to imply that nothing but American law matters and that there should be no concern for how things looted in Bulgaria might have vandalized archaeological sites or were exported or dug up contrary to law there. Some commentators also seem to be resentful of European commentators who bring attention to the deleterious effects of looting. Are these not a "nationalistic" mindsets??

Also just to clarify, although I may have been based in Europe for the better part of the past three years, I received my education and most of my training in the United States where I was born. It matters little where my desk is at.

I think more progress could be made if we avoid the name calling and inaccurate labels like "socialist," "nationalistic," etc. and instead engage with the issues which are how our own actions contribute to the erosive effects caused by treasure hunting and undocumented excavation on a large scale and how we can address that problem proactively instead of allowing the detrimental status quo to continue.

I personally think it is a very promising sign that some collectors are starting to think about the issues critically and are speaking out about it, even disagreeing with market suppliers who have already decided on their strategy.
David- Mr. Barford claimed in a post also circulated on the Museum Security List Serve that I was "chicken" for not answering Robyn's question even though I had and she had just not posted my response yet.

Are you "chicken" or will you answer my question directly? Feel free to substitute 1973 for 1970 if that will make it easier for you.

Incidentally, I have not spent "a lot of time" trying to identify Robyn, but it is says something about her that she prefers to attack people's integrity anonymously rather than identifying herself. In any event, she was identified to me by another person who knew who she is from some other discussion groups. She is also listed on "Blogger" under her full name as having her blog.

Finally, I think the ACCG website says about all there really is to say about the unprovenanced Cypriot coins imported for purposes of a test case. They were bought from a dealer in London and properly declared before entry in the US. I’m sure you will follow the case and comment on it further as it develops.

Back to my question: Do you oppose Robyn collecting artifacts for which there is no recorded provenance back to 1970 or 1973?

Peter Tompa
David Gill said…
Can we both applaud Robyn for thinking through her own ethical approach towards collecting?
As Robyn has noted my main concern is about looted archaeological material.
Best wishes
Bill Donovan said…
Dr. Gill,

I have not spent anytime trying to identify Robyn. Why would you think that? I am interested in the ideas Robyn presents on her blog.

You didn't answer my question, but instead made fun of what I wrote with insipid sarcasm. Nathan Elkins is the only anti-looting advocate who I have received real and constructive answers from when asking questions, he doesn't seem like a hypocrite, but someone who has made a decision and sticks to his guns. I feel that writing to you is like writing a pro-choice letter to a Republican preacher, you won't even read what I write, you will just attack me - not even addressing my ideas.

Do you support Robyn's collection of unprovenanced Egyptian antiquities?

Aren't almost all ancient coins unprovenanced, including the ones which have been in collections pre-1970?

I think it is good to think about the ethics of collecting. That is why I am bewildered by the constant flurry of attacks on (coin) collectors by yourself and others. It certainly won't help you achieve anything, it will just make your opposition more unified and organized.

Don't be surprised when collectors stand up for ourselves. We don't see ourselves the way you see us, our hobby is a way to share culture and build understanding. There is a long tradition of private ownership of ancient objects, and many leading intellectuals have used ancient artifacts as inspiration, to name a few: Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

David Gill said…
We obviously have something in common --- to use your words, "I am interested in the ideas Robyn presents on her blog". Why do you want me to comment on Robyn's private collection? It seems to me that Robyn can think through the issues for herself.
Are almost all coins "unprovenanced"? What do you mean by "unprovenanced"? Do you mean that they lack archaeological contexts? Or that they do not have collecting histories?
Thank you for drawing attention to historic collections - I have drawn attention to two of them in my published research with Chris Chippindale.
Best wishes
Bill Donovan said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
David- I’m afraid you are not only “chicken,’ but are being disingenuous as well. The AAMD had a rolling 10 year provenance requirement that was an effort to avoid accessioning recently looted artifacts while at the same time allowing for museums to freshen up their collections. You and your like-minded associates, however, badgered and berated the AAMD for not accepting a 1970 date, until they finally relented. Now you can see the results of your efforts on the AAMD object register. See

Our art museums have essentially stopped collecting ancient artifacts, because they have difficulty purchasing even substantial artifacts with a provenance dating back to 1970. Why were you so harsh on AAMD, but purport not to want focus on identical issues related to Robyn’s collection?

Peter Tompa
David Gill said…

Thank you for your revealing response which will not be lost on my readers - but Robyn is aware of the ethical issues and is addressing them.

Can I repeat myself? Would you join me in applauding her action?

My main concerns relate to the material and intellectual consequences of collecting - and that includes the destruction of archaeological sites.

You raise the issue of the AAMD. Perhaps you could explain why key member institutions of the AAMD have had to return antiquities to both Italy and Greece. I discuss this particular issue here, though since its posting the Cleveland Museum of Art has returned items to Italy.

Best wishes
Bill Donovan said…

I removed my earlier comment, because it had a nasty tone. I got carried away and forgot to follow the golden rule, treat others as you would treat yourself.

You are an intelligent person and know what the questions I asked meant, and could have answered them easily. You choose to respond with questions yourself as a way to avoid answering. That is what I meant when I called you disingenous. Everyone who reads this will know you are hiding your opinions to further an agenda. Which is fine, but that is what politicians do, not scientists. Heritage is a political idea, archaeology is a science. When you mix politics and science, you get results that justify political desires, these results have lost the objectivity that science requires.

Peter Tompa knows the issues in more detail, and can ask more pertinent questions than I can.

I am going to purchase your most recent paper from Jstor and read it, so I can do you the courtesy of being informed of your scholarship.



As a working archaeologist, I would suggest that the bright line you attempt to draw between archaeology(science) and politics does not exist.

At the most basic level, archaeologists interact with numerous political entities. For example, in Italy where I work, one needs a permit from the archaeological superintendency (a state agency), and must interact frequently with governments at various levels (e.g., the town in whose territory an excavation takes place).

Likewise, research is often caught up in current political issues (e.g., stem cells, Kennewick Man) and the very act of performing research thereby becomes political. This is not to mention more subtle questions such as those dealing with funding sources and the application of research findings.

(Incidentally I heartily recommend Dr. Gill's scholarly articles as required reading for anyone interested in the topic of this blog, agree with him or not.)

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