Art: Gold of the Indians

I do not marvel at gold and precious stones. But I am astonished to see workmanship excel the substance. For I have with wondering eyes beheld a thousand forms and similitudes, of which I am not able to write.

And in my judgment, I never saw anything whose beauty might so allure the eye of man.

Thus Peter Martyr, a Habsburg court chronicler and diplomat, greeted the Old World's first exaction upon the New: a stupendous hoard of ornaments, masks and ritual objects cast and hammered from teocuitlatl, "the gods' excrement"—as the Aztecs called gold—which Montezuma had given to the insatiable...