Chimú society was sharply class-divided, and only the nobility was entitled to own metal objects and wear glittering adornments. Nobles took full advantage of this prerogative, covering their garments, bags, and even shoes with ornaments made of precious metals. The six silver birds seen here could have been strung into a necklace or sewn onto garments as dangles. They are hollow in order to hold small pellets that would jingle as the birds, or their wearer, moved. The hole punched into the end of each bird’s tail suggests that they would have hung with their head sideways or down, a position that recalls birds diving for fish.
The birds’ rounded heads, flat sides, and stepped bodies are deliberately stylized. Rather than imitate nature, they recall the way birds are depicted in two-dimensional Chimú arts such as woven textiles. A similar geometric pattern is reproduced in plaster friezes on the walls of the palaces of the capital city, Chan Chan, as if the friezes replicated permanent wall hangings. Each bird is made up of two halves, created by hammering sheet-silver over a mold, first on one side and then on the other. The eyes were created by blunt tracing tools, hammered into recesses present on the mold. The two halves were then joined along their common edges and soldered with what appears to be a silvercopper alloy to create a hollow three-dimensional figure. In the fifteenth century, Chimú artisans were so renowned for their expertise in metallurgy that they were taken to the Inka capital, Cuzco, to work for the Inka state.
Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 71, cat. 397.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p. 30, 141, cat. 143.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 277, cat. 329, pl. CXXXIV.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p. 285, cat. 329, pl. CXXXIV.
Boone, Elizabeth Hill (ED.) 1996 Andean Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 1. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. vol. 1, p. 265-266, pl. 69.
Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 260-1.
Greenwood, Mrs. Hugh A. (ED.) 1941 Special Exhibit of Latin American Silver, October 14-November 15 1941. Pan American Union, Washington, D.C., p. 1, cat. 7
"Special Exhibit of Latin American Silver", Pan American Union, Washington DC, 10/14 - 11/15/1941 (catalogue # 7).
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to May 1948.
"Flights of Fancy: Birds in Pre-Columbian Art" Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2009 - 2/28/2010.
Formerly in the collection of Dr. Edward Gaffron, Berlin (collector).
Purchased from Dr. Gaffron, Berlin (collector), by Joseph Brummer, Paris (dealer),1912.
Purchased from Joseph Brummer, Paris (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, December 26, 1913.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1913-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.