02/18/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
Gold can provide a rush that has nothing to do with commercial greed—and can have an esthetic value not subject to the vagaries of the American dollar. Even before the decline of the greenback, many U.S. cultural institutions found that when they displayed artifacts of gold, attendance records also glittered. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, mining this vein, mounted a 1973 show titled simply "Gold," which featured Fabergé eggs, then followed it in 1975 with dazzling Scythian relics from Russia, in 1977 with gold from Rumania and last year with the king of shows: Tut.
Across Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History also struck gold at the turnstiles in 1977 when it assembled a stunning array of Peruvian artifacts. (Still traveling, it opens next month in Seattle.) Currently the museum is displaying "The Gold of El Dorado," the first major showing outside of Latin America of ancient gold from Colombia. The mineral-rich Andean country was a prime source of bullion during the time of the Spanish conquistadores and today is still the major producer in South America. Colombian natives placed no monetary value on the shining metal. It was apparently so abundant that just about everybody had some, and was not—as in the neighboring Inca, Aztec and Mayan civilizations—reserved for religious purposes or the vanity of the ruling classes. The Colombians admired it not only for its luster but also for its malleability, and often used their inexhaustible supply for tweezers, fishhooks and many kinds of tools. Some viewers may be disappointed by the resultant lack of grandeur in many of the exhibited works. But with more than 500 golden objects on display—some over 1,500 years old—there is plenty to pique anyone's interest.
Besides the seemingly standard necklaces and bracelets, there are distinctive earrings and nose ornaments, some quite uncomfortable-looking (one that was attached to the nostrils is over 16 inches long). More bizarre pieces include the Indians' cocaine paraphernalia (they chewed rather than sniffed), a sheath one prince used in place of a fig leaf and a clay mannequin with enough bright metalwork to shame any Rodeo Drive regular. In New York through March 18, the show then travels to Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans. The metal on the exchanges may provide more dizzying day-to-day action, but the Gold of El Dorado is eternal.