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The Glassell Collections of African, Indonesian & Pre-Columbian Gold

Houston philanthropist Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., had a passion for collecting, a fascination with gold art objects, and a desire to share them with the world. Like the cultures that fashioned these treasures, he valued gold not for its intrinsic value but for its spiritual meaning. The extensive collections of African, Indonesian, and Pre-Columbian gold that he gave the MFAH are a remarkable legacy. Among the highlights are a golden staff created by the Akan peoples of Ghana, a rare burial mask from Java, and jewelry made by the Moché culture of Peru.

Ghana or Côte d'Ivoire
Sword Handle of a Bird and Snake
Late 19th century
Wood and gold leaf

11 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gift of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, & the Americas

Arts of Africa
The Glassell Collections of African, Indonesian & Pre-Columbian Gold

The handles of ceremonial swords are often elaborately carved into figurative sculpture and covered with gold leaf. They relay proverbs and convey moral lessons. For example, this gold-leafed sword handle, which depicts a hornbill and a viper, tells the story of a bird that owed a debt to a snake. When the bird would not pay, the snake waited at the watering hole until the thirsty bird appeared and then captured it, a lesson about the power of patience.

Central to Akan rituals, swords are carried in processions for festivals and ceremonial events. Their most important function is in the oath-of-office ceremony for a chief, when the ruler-elect holds the sword while taking the oath. Subchiefs hold other swords while affirming their loyalty. Swords are also used in rituals purifying the chief's soul and are carried by official messengers and envoys. This function was the first recorded by Europeans. Considered empowered by divinity, swords serve to protect shrines and bear witness to the chief's power.