Middlebury College Museum of Art


Lost Luxuries: Ancient Chinese Gold

January 24–April 19, 2020

About 2,500 years ago, Chinese craftsmen started experimenting with goldsmithing, combining foreign techniques with their own local imagery and styles. In the centuries that followed, gold ornaments and vessels became potent communicators of economic status, official rank, gender norms, religious affiliation, and group identity. In the early twentieth century, art collectors across the globe recognized their beauty and historical importance and went to great lengths to obtain them.

Xianbei plaque, Northeast China, Western Jin dynasty
Xianbei plaque, Northeast China, probably Western Jin dynasty (265–316 CE), gold, width: 2 7/8 inches, 41.6 grams. Collection of Middlebury College Museum of Art, purchase with funds provided by the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Fund, 2019.

This exhibition explores the artistry and social meanings of Chinese gold objects produced between the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) and Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), as well as the more recent story of how they entered American museum collections. The ancient artifacts are accompanied by innovative digital features that bring to life recent excavations, traditional goldsmithing techniques, and the lives of the diverse artisans who created them.

Virtual Tour of Lost Luxuries

While the exhibit is no longer on view to the public, you can take a virtual tour of the gallery below, or you can view the installation on ThingLink.

Related Events

Wednesday, February 19

Lost Luxuries: Ancient Chinese Gold

Lecture and Opening Reception
Time: 4:30pm
Location: Mahaney Arts Center, Room 125 and Lower Lobby

Sarah Laursen, Curator of Asian Art

In ancient China, gold ornaments were potent symbols of official rank, gender, group identity, and economic status; by the early twentieth century, they were sought after by art collectors for their beauty. Join Sarah Laursen, Curator of Asian Art and Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture, for a lecture about the little-known history of early Chinese gold, followed by a reception with light refreshments in the Lower Lobby.

Sarah Laursen
Photo: Sarah Laursen

Tuesday, February 25

Secrets of Ancient Goldsmiths Demystified

Illustrated Lecture
Time: 4:30pm
Location: Mahaney Arts Center, Room 125

Jeanette K. Caines

Ancient jewelers made astounding works of art, unrivalled in modern times, without the benefit of electricity or modern equipment of any kind. How did they do it? Join Jeanette K. Caines, master goldsmith and director of Jewelry Arts Inc., for a lecture on ancient goldsmithing techniques.

Chinese gold phoenix ornament
Photo: Jeanette K. Caines, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, March 10

Ancient Asian Gold Technology

Illustrated Lecture
Time: 4:30pm
Location: Mahaney Arts Center, Room 125

Donna Strahan

Unique among Asian art materials, gold is both a color and an artistic medium. Donna Strahan, Head of Conservation and Scientific Research at the Freer|Sackler Galleries of Art, Smithsonian Institution, investigates materials and methods of manufacture of Asian gold objects.

Cicada plaque, 3rd-4th century CE, gold
Cicada plaque, 3rd-4th century CE, gold with turquoise, coral, and glass inlay on a gilt copper back plate. The Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., RLS1997.48.4455. X-radiograph, Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution.