Thracian Gold: Playing Cat and Mouse at the Museum


Digging clay for a tile company isn’t the most glamorous job on the best of days, particularly during a cold Bulgarian winter.

Deikovi Brothers
Is it just me, or do these guys look like the Pep Boys?

But on December 8, 1949, the three Deikov brothers unearthed an archaeological shocker that certainly must have made their day – and year for that matter. Imagine their surprise when they uncovered a solid gold, 3rd Century BCE, ceremonial wine service which was one of the finest examples of Thracian craftsmanship ever discovered.

Thought to have been used by Seuthes III, the king of Thrace, the gold treasure weighed in at 6.2 kg. For you metrically-challenged types this is 13.5 pounds, or as we say in English $218,000. The trove, named after a nearby and impossible to pronounce town, is known as the Panagyurishte Treasure.

But this post is only tangentially about this marvelous find. It’s really a classic bait and switch scenario. The bling of the treasure is the bait to draw you in. And the switch is the fact that I had to sneak these photos, explicitly violating the no-photo rule at the Plovdiv Historical Museum. So my real question is: Why can’t I take photos in a museum?

No Photos

In an informed article on, Carolina A. Miranda says:

“We’re in an age when people take pictures just about everywhere … The phenomenon has created a unique set of challenges for art museums, many of which have historically had strict limitations on photography—either for the purpose of protecting light-sensitive works or because of copyright issues.”

This rule has bugged me for ages, and I’ve never fully understood its blanket enforcement. First off, in the case of light sensitive works of art, I get that and agree. Also, if someone is taking photos of a piece of art and then selling it, that’s a clear violation of copyright, and I get that as well. And any time I take photos, whether allowed or not, I’m always sensitive to interfering with other museum visitors.

Rhyton 5

But the Plovdiv Historical Museum is exactly the type of place where no-photo rules seem silly. Take the Panagyurishte Treasure for example. These are 2300 year-old gold wine goblets we’re talking about, and even though I don’t use a flash, they’re gold, and they’ve been buried in mud for two millennia, so I don’t think that a bit of light is going to damage them. And I’m no copyright expert, but I’m pretty certain we’re WAY beyond the infringement point.

In her article, Miranda says that many museums are loosening up their no-photo policy, but in my experience, it isn’t happening fast enough. When I see an exhibit as unique and marvelous as the Panagyurishte Treasure, I want my own photos. In my case, these photos frequently end up in a blog post, and in these days of Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, it astounds me that museum administrators can’t see the value of this free publicity.

Rhyton 4

Don’t get me wrong, the Plovdiv Historical Museum has a wonderful collection and is definitely worth a visit. And luckily, on the day I visited I was one of three visitors, and the roving guard strolled through only once – so I got the photos I wanted. As ludicrous as it sounds, I sometimes wonder if museum staff think that if photos aren’t allowed, I’ll buy more postcards at the gift shop.

Anyway, I agree with Katherine Hepburn: “If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.”

Do you begrudgingly obey the no-photo rule, or like me, play the cat-and-mouse game with roaming guards and hope not to get busted? Tell your tale.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri


Photo Credit:
6. Sam Ballard via Wikimedia Commons


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

51 thoughts

  1. I try to obey the rules, but sometimes I just cave in to temptation! In churches, I make sure I put something in a collection box.

    Those golden pieces are utterly wonderful. I’m happy for you that you have your own photos to look at from time to time.

    1. Yvonne, this is a fabulous gold collection. I had never heard of it or seen it before our trip to the museum, which is surprising given its quality and historical importance. I don’t always break the rules, but like you, I sometimes can’t help myself. ~James

    1. Peggy, in my experience, this is a trend with larger organizations. In these galleries and museums there are always going to be no-photo exhibitions, and I’m fine with that. But in areas that aren’t sensitive to light, etc, it’s great that they’re loosening up on the rules. And just as I said in my post, people like you will publish photos which is great free advertising. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Marie and for dropping by the blog. I’m with you 100% on selfie sticks, and in fact, most selfies. It seems that many travelers today can’t just tell their friends that they visited a place, they have to be seen to have visited. I’ll win the geezer award for saying it, but selfies can get to be a real nuisance sometimes. ~James

  2. I try to follow the rules but always wish I could have taken pictures. The Flemish tapestries in a cathedral in Malta would have been so wonderful to photograph but I imagine the flash would have been damaging. I once took a picture of a fabulous wedding cake for a friend, in Harrod´s, and my camera was almost taken from me by a security guard. The picture got back to Canada and my friend´s daughter had a cake made just like it for her wedding! I admit I do sneak in a picture once in awhile. The gold pieces are awesome.

    1. Darlene, I don’t always break the rules. Obviously, there are places where it isn’t possible or appropriate to take photos. But in many cases my philosophy is: “It’s easier to obtain forgiveness than permission.” I love your Harrod’s story. The article I reference discusses one of the issues facing museums is that security guards are wasting time enforcing the no-photo rule and not actually spending enough time doing what they’re there for, which is protecting the valuable art collections. ~James

  3. The no photos rule does sound a bit extreme but on the other hand, I have seen people taking photos of artworks with a flash camera, showing no concern for the damage that they could be doing. I have seen people walking around ancient sites or museums photographing and filming everything, without actually looking at anything except through the screen on their camera. Some exhibits are overwhelmed by crowds waving their phones at them instead of using the “eyes app”.
    As long as museums make sure that plenty of their exhibits are professionally photographed and available online on free, I don’t have a problem with asking people just to enjoy life and experience the moment without trying to record every tiny millisecond of their existence!
    Great post btw – one of my favourites of yours!

    1. Thanks Alastair. These are great points. Luckily for us, Terri and I always travel together and we each like to take photographs. It works well because we always get two perspectives of the place, and it also helps because while one is photographing, the other is actually looking around with the “eye app.” Great term BTW. And God help us if we happen to be at an important site when a tour bus disgorges its mob of selfie-shooters. It reminds me of chickens escaping the hen house, and usually means that we’ll be moving along. ~James

    1. Danni, on our way back from our recent trip to the Balkans we stopped for a few days in London. We hadn’t visited in a few years so we did a “greatest hits” museum binge. It was good to see a few museums have relaxed their no-photo rules, but a few had not. But I have to say, that if I see something that I love, like you, I sneak a shot or two. No harm, no foul – right? ~James

      1. The main museums are definitely more relaxed in London than they were which is great. Sadly I go to a lot of exhibitions and there’s a lot of security in each room. I still manage a sneaky picture or two though. X

  4. A worse rule is “No Professional Cameras”. When I was at the Vatican Museum, photography was allowed most places, but not by people with “professional cameras”. But, the joke was on them. My cell phone camera has more megapixels than my first digital camera had. It isn’t the quality or cost of a camera the makes you a professional!

    1. Laura, the Vatican is a pretty buttoned-up place, so I’m glad to see you pulled the wool over their eyes. And given the photographic technology being packed into smaller and smaller devices (including phones), I’d imagine that they’ll have to revisit this rule. My tiny travel zoom has about 50 times more capability than my old SLR ever had, which doesn’t make me a professional, but if I snap enough shots I luck out from time to time. ~James

    1. Thanks Tess. Actually, these photos turned out better than I expected. Sometimes, exhibits in glass cases can be a bear to get without reflections. And I hadn’t heard “goody two shoes” in ages. Any idea of its origins? ~James

    1. Thanks Marilyn. I love antiquities, and this treasure is exactly the kind of exhibit that entices me to break the rules. The detail on these pieces is fabulous. No one really knows, but it’s surmised that the pieces were buried and hidden from invaders. ~James

  5. I’m largely a rule follower. Glad you got these, though; they are gorgeous! I did take a photo of what I thought was a cool stone house in Jerusalem last summer and a guy came running out and made me immediately erase it in front of him … turns out it was the American embassy! Oops.

    1. I’ve never been confronted with a forced erasure Lexie, but I’ve had a few complaints (usually in a foreign language, which I normally don’t understand) and finger shakes. But my policy has always been that if soldiers are anywhere around, I’m very careful about taking out the camera. I’m sure that you didn’t see the security, so I say it was no harm, no foul. ~James

  6. Some museums, mainly in Europe, don’t mind photography, though many stipulate no flash should be used. Sales, I suspect, is one reason for the ban. If you take photographs you don’t buy postcards, but then who buys postcards anyway in these days of digital and social media? Weird rules and regulations want to limit our action. I read recently that it’s illegal to photograph the Eiffel Tower in Paris at night when lit up. Can’t remember why. But really, who can enforce this! Recently in Rhodes I took a photograph of some old vases in a shop window. The owner flew out and insisted I delete them from my camera, insisting what I did was illegal. I didn’t want a fracas in the middle of a crowded tourist street so assured him I would do it at home. Shop windows in Florence had signs that it was illegal to photograph them. I’ve also heard there are bans now on photographing in certain public places in the UK, but haven’t yet come across that myself. Curtailment of liberty, definitely.

    1. As I said, some of these rules seem pretty silly to me Dorothy – like the Eiffel Tower and vases in a shop window. If it’s ever an issue, I just walk off from the confrontation. Luckily, it’s never been any big deal. As you point out, a big part of the problem is the inconsistency. Some places encourage photos everywhere, and others have roaming Nazis to make sure it doesn’t happen. But the bottom line for me is that if I’m not using a flash or infringing on copyright, and if it’s something that I really like, I sneak a photo or two. Really, I think that it comes down to common sense, and a sensitivity to the place and people. ~James

  7. I am so happy you took these pictures. I would have never known about these treasures. And as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. I think it is fine as long as it doesn’t cause any harm. In fact it helps the museum by sharing. Yes I admit to sneaking a few photos when I needed to. Besides, how else can family members who can’t travel experience these things through your eyes?

    1. I agree Pam, that as long as I’m not doing any harm, or interfering with other visitors’ experience, a few photos won’t hurt. And honestly, when I saw this gold collection, I fell in love and was prepared to stand around as long as it took to get some photos. As I said to someone else, my philosophy is: “It’s easier to obtain forgiveness than permission.” ~James

  8. Although I don’t even really know why, I am mostly a rule follower when it comes to taking pictures in museums. Perhaps I live in fear of the embarrassment as some security guard tackles me! You and Terri are such rebels!

    1. I’ve never been tackled Lynn, but I’ve certainly had a few stern looks and finger and head shakes. Once in the Etruscan Museum in Rome, I had a real cat and mouse game going with the guard. I came there to see (and photograph) one fabulous piece in particular. Of course I wrote a post:

      And I was determined to get a few photos. The guard absolutely KNEW that I was taking photos and she kept ducking in and out of the gallery trying to catch me. Terri was sure that I was going to get us thrown out. It was pretty funny. ~James

  9. I’ve never been much for rules that don’t make any sense. 🙂 And I am definitely up for ‘sneaky’ photos at times. I get the flash business, but modern DSL cameras compensate well for darker situations, and in many cases, make better photos. I also recognize the need for courtesy. In the end, I think the PR would be worth it for most places. –Curt

    1. Curt, I always had you down as a guy who saw the rules as flexible. As for me, I almost never use a flash, because you’re right about modern cameras and their low light abilities. And even if the museum allows photos, I don’t want to be the insensitive clod that trashes the experience for other visitors. As I said to someone else, as in most things, it just comes down to common sense, and a sensitivity to others. ~James

  10. I’m glad you broke the rules! If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known to put the Plovdiv Historical Museum on my bucket list!

    Museums that don’t allow photography may do so so that they can control the images and possibly sell them in postcards, as you say, or in books in their gift shops. In some cases it’s to control the crowds so that the photo takers don’t get in the way of others enjoying the museum. That said, I always want to take photos. I’ve been in some museums, where you can pay to take photos. You get a sticker that says you have bought the right. It’s a new revenue stream. I always pay. It usually isn’t much. I didn’t see anyone checking for stickers in Schwerin Palace in Germany, but I did buy a sticker there. My best photos were outside where it was free to photograph, wouldn’t you know!

    In Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg, there were signs everywhere that photographs are not permitted, but we were in a tour that had paid to photograph. There were so many people thronging through, though, that the photos weren’t that great. I did get one good shot of the Amber Room!

    The Church & Catacombs at San Francisco Convent in Lima, Peru, doesn’t allow photography of the many bones in various arrangements, but there are plenty of good photos online. Still, like you, I would have liked to have taken my own.

    1. Cathy, I’m not surprised that a professional photographer like you would have a lot to say about this topic. You bring up an interesting point about photos as another income stream. In these days of tight government budgets, most museums have to maximize their incomes and I appreciate this financial reality. I must admit to being a bit ambivalent on these fees. If the museum is free, then by all means charge for taking photos, but if there’s an entrance fee, and the museum allows photos, then there should be no charge. You’re right that the charge is always minimal, so it should just be rolled into the entrance fee. And for me, one of the reasons that I prefer my photos instead of postcards or online photos is that frequently I have an interest in details that another photographer might miss or not be concerned about. Thanks for your input. ~James

      1. I agree that the photography fees should be rolled into entrance fees. And for us bloggers, we need our own photos to include with our posts, if possible, because as you say, we want to emphasize certain aspects of an artwork, room, etc.

        Sometimes museums want to control the information about their exhibits, thinking that people won’t want to visit the museum if they have already “seen” it online. But, the publicity that bloggers etc. provide is much more likely to interest the public in seeing the work in person, if possible. Your posts prove that!

        I think a lot of the “no photography” rule began when most amateur cameras needed flash to take photos, and it was much easier to make a rule against all cameras than making sure people had their flashes turned off.

        One museum in Florence (the Statue of David) that I went to prohibited photography, but everyone ignored it. The guard was beside herself trying to get people to stop. I don’t know why photos were prohibited there, except that it was dark and perhaps people would be tempted to use a flash.

        I can freely take photos at our local art museum, except in some of the traveling exhibits, because I was told that the owners of the artwork hadn’t given permission.

        I do have a pet peeve about people taking photos with ipads on museum tours. Those things are so huge, and they hold them up and block everyone’s shots.

        I really enjoy your blog and and I am grateful for all of your photos. You go to so many places I’ve never even heard of and taken photos of things I’ve never seen even in photos, and that in itself is reason enough for you to ignore the No Photos signs! You have my blessing 😉

      2. Thank so much Cathy. Your observations make an excellent addition to the post. I suspect that you’re right about the enforcement of these rules going back to – as my nieces say: The Olden Days. I also think that many of the museum staff and administrators may be ex-academic types who are steeped in tradition and fairly resistant to change. Anyway, we’ll just have to keep dodgin’ the guards, looking nonchalant, and sneakin’ our photos. ~James

  11. Arrrgh, the rules drive me crazy too. Sometimes I play cat and mouse with the guards, sometimes I buy postcards and photograph them for the blog, and sometimes I just do without. Thanks for sharing about this amazing museum. It’s going on the list!

    1. As I said to someone else Alison, I don’t might the odd sneak, but unless it’s something that’s super special to me, I don’t make it an issue. I’ve been to some museums where the guards are absolute Nazis about it, and if they ever take it this seriously, like you, I just do without. None of this is worth a serious confrontation. ~James

  12. I once tried to take a photo at a McDonald’s restaurant in China and was asked to refrain. And, did you know that in several eastern European countries it is illegal to photograph trains? Since it is simply too hard to know all the rules, I sporadically adhere to whatever lets me get by without attracting much attention. I love your cat-and-mouse story (but I have also witnessed a group of young men getting nearly arrested for taking one photo of a train in Slovakia – the armed police settled for a large fee)

    1. How can you blame them Susan? Who knows what you could do with a Micky Ds photo? 🙂 It’s funny that you mention train photos in Eastern Europe, because the last one I remember taking was in Podgorica, Montenegro, and I took it because the train was such a bucket of rusty bolts that I wanted documentation in case it broke down on our trip across the mountains. I suspect that some of this photo-paranoia in this part of the world goes back to the communist days. They were very good at enforcing illogical rules. ~James

  13. Aside for the light damage issue I get quite annoyed by no photo rules, not that I’ve come across too many. In Koln a man more or less chased me away from his shop because I took a photo of the wonderful displays of fruit and vegetables outside. It was embarrassing at the time and I deleted the photos I’d taken because I didn’t want this horrible man and his shop to have any publicity on my blog. At the end of the day taking photos is giving places free publicity, especially for bloggers like you and I. Many times I’ve seen a place on a blog and added it to my must see list. My opinion is, if I’m allowed to see it I should be able to take photos of it.

    1. I can understand how people would object to having their photo taken, but shop windows are beyond me. You aren’t the only person who’s commented on upset shop owners. I just don’t understand. And for the free publicity that you mention, I feel the same way about museums. In the case of working artists, I know that museums must protect copyright, but antiquities? I just don’t get it. ~James

    1. Jo, I just looked online at Monet’s house, and what a beautiful house and garden. I can see why you’d want to sneak a few shots and risk a French snarl or two. You go girl! ~James

    1. Thanks for reblogging our post on Plovdiv and the museum. This gold exhibit was wonderful, and it’s the very kind of show that inspires travelers (me included) to snap a few forbidden shots. ~James

What do you think? We'd love to know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s