Be It Belt Buckles or Babylonian Clay Tablets, Collector Pursues Passions

A chance stop in an antiquarian bookstore set Robert Bruce off on a lifetime of collecting such things as Babylonian clay tablets, illuminated leaves and old belt buckles. At the time, he was only 16.

“That turned me on, and I started saving my money,” the Newport Beach resident said.

Now semi-retired and financially comfortable, Bruce has his eyes open for new collection adventures, especially older artifacts. “I’m a wheeler and dealer,” he says, willing to barter and trade.

For instance, he has three Babylonian clay tablets that are scrawled in cuneiform, the universal writing of the Babylonian era and first interpreted in the 1850s. The tablets date to 2051 BC.


Illuminated leaves--that fancy writing in gold in the first letter of a sentence--usually are found in old Bibles and religious books, according to Bruce, who said most were drawn by monks in monasteries.

“I spend a lot of time in antiquarian bookstores looking for them,” said Bruce, who was reared in Hollywood, worked a lifetime in the carpet business and once aspired to acting. (“I worked as a movie extra, but I never made it as an actor,” he said.)

Bruce also has a 4-by-8-inch brick taken from a ziggurat, a walled city in Persia that dates to 1240 BC. He said the story carved into the brick carries a pompous message from the reigning king, who bragged about his powers.

“I keep (the artifacts) at home so I can see and pick them up and touch them. You have to get the feel of it,” Bruce said. “Why not enjoy and look at it?”


His living room resembles a museum showroom. The walls are covered with paintings and brass figures.

One benefit of his collecting is the knowledge of history he has gained. “You learn so much when you collect because you have to read so much.”

A small bronze statue of Osiris, an ancient Egyptian god, is another prized item in Bruce’s collection. He said he recently sold a 5-foot-tall statue of St. Peter carved out of wood in the late 1600s in Germany.

Bruce went “wheeling and dealing” with his collection of belt buckles, some of them made by Confederate soldiers in the Civil War. Some of the buckles were manufactured by Coca-Cola and beer companies, which advertised their products on them.

He traded for French and American contemporary paintings--another of his passions, although distant from his love for older, historical artifacts.

“There was one (buckle) that had a picture of a woman on it and when you opened it up, she didn’t have any clothes on,” Bruce said. “That was quite risque during those times. Some of them were really ingenious.”

After operating for 18 years as an all-volunteer restaurant in downtown San Juan Capistrano, the Coffee Garden was forced to close its doors Friday, the victim of an aging work force.

“A lot of the women have grown old and some have died,” said Bobby Berman, 49, who managed the restaurant and was one of three paid staffers. “Young women are entering the work force to make money at a regular job and aren’t volunteering anymore.”


Over the years, the Coffee Garden has raised more than $450,000 for the Family Services Assn. of Orange County, said Berman, who noted that the restaurant once had as many as 60 volunteers who served continental breakfasts and lunches.

Before it closed, the volunteer force totaled 26. “We just couldn’t continue to operate with that few people,” he explained. “It was too taxing on the ladies.”

The volunteers, most of them between the ages of 60 and 80, were heartbroken over the closing, Berman said. “They really didn’t want to admit defeat.”

But Berman, a veteran of the restaurant business, said he knows that “you win some and you lose some.”

Berman said he plans to open a restaurant of his own in Oceanside.

Acknowledgments--Fire engineer Gary Lovrien, 37, whose father was a firefighter for 30 years, was named Firefighter of the Year by the San Clemente Fire Department. Lovrien lives in San Clemente.