Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Contact with Europe

As the Europeans came in contact with American gold, an entirely new value system was placed upon the material. Unlike Amerindians, Europeans used gold and other precious metals in currency and as a direct medium of exchange. Direct accounts from the period of contact confirm that Europeans did in fact appreciate the beauty of these gold pieces, however the underlying excitement around the finding of such treasures surrounded their monetary value, rather than their splendor, workmanship, or spirituality.

Upon arrival in Central America, the Spaniards began a process of mutual exchange of goods with locals, trading steel knives and beads for gold and other treasures. Indigenous Americans did not know how to craft many of the items brought over by the Spaniards and, once again appreciating the technology behind an object, locals were impressed by European knowledge in working with these materials. The knives and beads contained the same shiny quality as the gold and were created using methods mysterious and interesting to the Amerindians and so were greatly valued. Realizing that the indigenous peoples did not recognize the value of gold in the way Europeans did, the Spaniards were able to trade fairly little in exchange for large quantities of gold. Furthermore, based on their technological skills and possession of large quantities of shiny objects, the indigenous peoples first understood the Spanish as a superior power, lavishing their foreign visitors with gifts of even more gold. Although eventually the natives came to understand the value the Spaniards attributed to gold and began to control it more tightly, the Spanish were able to get away with great amounts of the metal. During the contact period, between 1503 and 1660, transportation of gold from America to Spain totaled around 185,000 kilograms. At today’s pricing of gold, this would be worth $1,558,023,000. Unfortunately, most of the original pieces brought back to Spain no longer survive. Much of it was melted down or sold to fund the great empire Spain became. The ability to be melted down and re-used makes the history of gold pieces particularly challenging. As much of the gold was taken from the area during the contact period, most of what we know about Pre-Columbian gold comes from archaeological digs of gravesites. Much like many ancient cultures around the globe, it was practice to bury the dead with treasures from their lifetime. Though grave robbers have picked many of these sites clean, we are able to learn a great deal about Pre-Columbian society and its variations across geography and time through the excavation of these sites.

Until very recently the standard procedure for excavated Pre-Columbian gold objects was to melt the metal down and sell it. This gold would even be sold at a discount to dentists to make crowns for teeth. People could be walking around with melted down and reformed Pre-Columbian gold in their mouths and not even know it! For this reason, forgeries of these pieces have been relatively uncommon throughout history. If the gold itself is worth as much or more than its history and shape, there is no purpose to forge a Pre-Columbian gold artifact. Luckily, recent interest in these pieces has made them more valuable to keep intact for private buyers of museums, rather than to melt them down. Because of this, forgeries are becoming more common and a larger portion of research is dedicated to authenticating the works. Likely many of the pieces available now were excavated during more recent time periods; therefore they survive in the form given to them by indigenous Americans. From Spanish conquistadors to melting practices to grave robbers, we have slowly lost much of the history that comes along with these works. But thanks to fluctuations in the values attached to gold, we now have access to many more pieces such as this one and an ever-increasing wealth of knowledge about the society they come from.

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