Bird-form pendants are the best known of the many gold objects from Precolumbian America. Made for centuries in many styles and sizes, in an area stretching from Costa Rica to north and central Colombia, their basic configuration is usually the same: spread wings over splayed tails and projecting heads with strongly curved beaks. Single birds are the most common, although double images, like this one, also occur in fair numbers. The pendants were named aguilas (eagles) by Christopher Columbus, who first noted them being worn by local peoples suspended from their necks when he sailed along the Caribbean coast of Central America in 1502; they have retained that name ever since. Bird pendants are thought to have functioned as protective emblems.
Precolumbian works of art in gold are a particular strength of the Rockefeller collection. Such objects began to be acquired in 1949, and almost a decade later were in sufficient numbers to be the subject of the sixth exhibit at the Museum of Primitive Art, Pre-Columbian Gold Sculpture. The introduction to the catalogue, written by archaeologists Junius Bird and Gordon Ekholm of the American Museum of Natural History, comments on the renown of the fabulous ancient American gold, as alive in 1958 as it had been three centuries earlier when America was the recently discovered "golden land."
[John Wise Ltd., New York, until 1957]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1957, on loan to the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1957–1978
Newton, Douglas, Julie Jones, and Kate Ezra. The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987, no.100, p. 135.