“Collectors are, I am convinced, born and not made. Those who have the instinct will collect something just as surely as birds fly south in winter; the only question is what it will be….but my guess is that nine times out of ten the field ultimately selected is pure happenstance.” (1) For Richard C. Bull the field was Asian art and antiquities, which he discovered as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930’s.
When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the process of having your eyes examined was much more time-consuming than it is today. You went to the oculist’s office early in the morning, had a preliminary check-up, and were then turned over to his secretary, whose duty it was to put drops in your eyes every hour for three hours, after which you have the final examination. During this period reading was impossible. Being by nature restless and impatient, I found it intolerable to sit and meditate in the doctor’s waiting room, denied even the dubious diversion of waiting-room magazines. I would therefore window-shop for an hour, return for my drops, and set off for another hour’s stroll. It was on one of these strolls that I saw the pair of turquoise birds in Johnny Mullman’s window. (2)
Mr. Bull was indeed a born collector. As a child he collected World War I recruiting posters, butterflies and moths. (3) As an adult his main interests were Chinese antiquities and Asian art. In 1950, when trade with China ceased, Mr. Bull turned his collecting interests to other neighboring cultures. It is during this time that he collected the diverse assemblage of objects which now form the Richard C. Bull Collection at Bryn Mawr College. The objects of Mr. Bull’s collection were mostly purchased from art dealers in New York City and Philadelphia. He dealt with two of the three major art and antiquities dealers in New York; Mathias Komor and J.J. Klejman. He also bought art and antiquities from the famous Chinese antiquities dealer C.T. Loo. In addition to antiquities dealers, Mr. Bull was friendly with several scholars of Asian art and history, especially Dr. Alfred Salmony. These scholars helped to guide Mr. Bull with his personal research in Asian art and antiquities and with his purchases. Furthermore, Mr. Bull and his wife, Josephine Rothermal Bull AB ’34, enjoyed traveling and visited many countries where they purchased pieces for their collection. In 1986, the Bulls gave a collection of twenty-six objects to Bryn Mawr College. They also have given larger collections of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Guatemalan art to the University of Pennsylvania Museum and to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The story of Mr. Bull and his collection is an example of the style and type of collecting that many Americans participated in before the UNESCO Convention of 1972 and the Senate and Congress Bills H.R. 5643 and 4566 of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. These are pieces of legislation which made it illegal to export antiquities and art from their country of origin without the permission of that country. (4) Collections were usually assembled with an understanding of the pieces and the cultures from which they come, but almost always the pieces came from art dealers. This means that the objects did not have a verifiable context.
Context in this sense refers to the information which can be gathered and surmised from knowing where exactly in the ground at a specific site the objects came and how that position is related to other objects, building remains, or other features. The context can help scholars date the objects as well as understand their potential uses and significance. Collections like the Bull Collection emphasize the importance of studying excavated collections not only to understand the culture and history of the objects, but also to understand these earlier pre-UNESCO Convention collections. The objects of this collection have been studied through comparison with both excavated collections and with collections from museums (mostly coming from art dealers) in order to understand not only the date, provenience and purpose of the pieces but also Mr. Bull’s intentions for his collection.