TRAVEL: Museum authenticity issue forged in Peru's golden history

LIMA, Peru -- The first thing that happened was, I got scammed. It was stupid, of course. But it seemed so sensible to pay the smiling uniformed man at the cruise port $10 down on a $24 taxi fare. He put me into a taxi to Lima and shut the door. ...

Pre-Columbian polychrome
Pre-Columbian polychrome pottery at Museo Larco in Lima, Peru supposedly has 50,000 pots in its collection.

LIMA, Peru -- The first thing that happened was, I got scammed.

It was stupid, of course. But it seemed so sensible to pay the smiling uniformed man at the cruise port $10 down on a $24 taxi fare. He put me into a taxi to Lima and shut the door.

"Turn on the air-conditioning!" he shouted to the taxi driver in English as we drove away.

Funny thing was, the driver spoke only Spanish. And when we got back, he demanded $40. The first guy? Long gone with my $10.

"He was dishonest," a port official later explained, stating the obvious. "That happens a lot."


Welcome to Lima, a rollicking city where people and treasures may be genuine -- or not.

There is no better illustration of the duality of Peru's capital city than its two most famous private museums -- the Gold Museum (Museo Oro del Peru) and the Larco Museum (Museo Larco).

Both are big tourist favorites. Both have gorgeous collections of Peruvian gold. But that's where they part company.

The sleek Larco Museum has an estimated 5,000 gold objects and 40,000 pieces of pre-Columbian pottery. Begun in 1926 by collector Rafael Larco Herrera, the museum is meticulously curated. It's also renowned for erotic pottery from pre-Inca days.

Across town, the Gold Museum was started in 1924 by collector Miguel Mujica Gallo, who amassed a huge array of stunning gold objects that he bought from tomb robbers in northern Peru. Located in the wealthy Monterrico district, the museum's treasure trove is displayed in a basement that smells just a tiny bit mildewy. No English labels are posted.

I visited both museums. And loved both. And later found out that in 2001 authorities discovered the Gold Museum was exhibiting up to 98 percent fakes.

Are visitors to the Gold Museum now seeing truth or fiction?

"I know that the museum has made an effort to identify any fraudulent material since the scandal. But I don't know details," says Mark Aldenderfer, professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona and an expert on Peruvian antiquities.


Peru's government tourism agency, Visit Peru, describes the Gold Museum in its literature this way: "Now notorious ... the museum was reopened with an assurance that all pieces now on display in its huge basement are bona fide, but the confusion is yet to be completely cleared up."

However, Gold Museum spokeswoman Claudia Rengito Gracey says that even before the scandal, efforts were made to root out fake pieces accidentally bought by founder Gallo in his later years. The museum employs archaeologists and conservators to authenticate the gold now on display. Even the museum's biggest detractors "fortunately have not been able to discredit the great quality of the pre-Columbian pieces" the museum owns, she says.

The Gold Museum was the most-visited in Lima last year.

Gold makes men do crazy things. That's why the real thing, when you see it, is so valuable. Gold fever helped Peru's Incas rise to dominance in the 1400s. It's why the Spanish invaded and melted down Inca treasure into gold bars. It's why Peru's poor still scratch out flecks of gold in the Andes, even though they have to extract it with a poisonous mercury wash. Indirectly, it's why guys rip off tourists at cruise ports.

But centuries before that, Peru's ancient jewelers created major bling from all the gold they found around them.

Long before the Incas, they made heavy gold bracelets and breastplates. Jeweled crowns and ceremonial cups. Masks of pure gold and silver that still glitter today as they did nearly 2,000 years ago. Funeral objects to smooth the journey to the other world.

By AD 300-500, their artisans were even smelting gold, doing inlay and complicated designs, creating treasures for their kings, trading for emeralds in what is now Colombia and lapis lazuli in what is now Chile.

Gold was the father, the sun, which they worshiped. Silver was the mother, the moon.


Even now, the necklaces look so gorgeous any actress would be thrilled to wear one at the Academy Awards. The gold looks so soft you want to touch it.

And it's real.

At least, I think it's real.

Gold museums

Here are Central and South Americas' best known gold museums. All contain pre-Columbian (earlier than the 1500s) gold.

• Peru

Larco Museum (Museo Larco): In Lima's Pueblo Libre neighborhood, it has a well-labeled main hall with gold, silver, pottery and textiles. Nearby is a storeroom open to the public containing tens of thousands of pieces of painted pottery, plus a second building with Mochia erotic pottery. (Bolivar 1515,; entrance fee $9.60)

Gold Museum (Museo Oro del Peru): In Lima's tony Monterrico suburb. Upstairs is an amazing collection of armaments from medieval to modern days. Downstairs is the gold collection, but there are no English labels. (Alonso de Molina 1110, Monterrico,; entrance fee $10.50)


• Colombia

Gold Museum (Museo del Oro): This sophisticated museum, totally renovated in 2008, contains a treasure of ancient gold artworks produced by the people of what is now Colombia. In Santander Park, on the corner of Carrera 5 and 16th Street. (; entrance fee $1.10)

• Costa Rica

Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Precolombino): Located under the main Plaza de la Cultura in the capital of San Jose is the museum at Central Avenue and 2nd Avenue. It covers the history of gold artistry and contains many artifacts from Central America's ancient gold artisans. (; entrance fee $7)

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