Oro del Peru: Treasures of the Incas

12 June – 13 July 1986

When in January the National Art Gallery invited us to collaborate in presenting with the Fletcher Challenge Corporation the fabulous "Oro del Peru" exhibition, we were eager to co-operate.

Wherever it has been shown, the Treasures of the Incas collection of 254 objects from the Peruvian Gold Museum in Lima has attracted thousands of fascinated visitors eager to see the exquisite craftsmanship and golden objects of the Inca people and learn about the way of life of this vanished South American civilisation.

This collection of Inca treasures was begun during the 1930s by Miguel Mujica Gallo after the systematic looting of the Peruvian tombs came to his attention. In order to preserve and codify his country's seminal culture, he began buying some of the most important pieces. In 1966 he established the Museum "Oro del Peru" to publicly display his, by then, vast assortment of ancient Peruvian feather-work, textiles, jewellery and objects of gold, silver and copper.

To an economy more accustomed to admiring gold for the capital it represents it comes as a surprise to learn the soft, non-corroding metal was valued by the inhabitants of old Peru not as hard currency but for its aesthetic beauty alone. Gold was discovered in earliest times and, while the nuggets were most likely first used as they could be shaped by hammers without resorting to heat, the systematic mining and smelting of ore and gold dust could have started before the Christian era.

The Peruvians covered temple walls in gold, it was used to decorate the apparel of priests and princes, it had its place in religious ritual and as a mark of class distinction, but it was a means of exchange.

The objects of display in Treasures of the Inca were all found in the ground, in graves for the most part because, like the Egyptians, the nobility of Peru customarily packed their tombs with all they would need in the afterlife. Yet the story would not be complete without giving credit to the nameless Indians who, after witnessing the ruthless Spanish lust for gold, carefully hid whatever objects they could so that later, more considerate generations might witness and wonder at the glory that was Peru.

('ORO del PERU: Treasures of the Incas', Bulletin, No.45, May/June 1986, pp.1-2)