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The mystery of the Cincinnati Art Museum's ancient horse sculpture, solved

The Dancing Horse dates back to China's Tang Dynasty and was acquired by the Cincinnati Art Museum from a private collector in the late 1990s.
Ann Thompson
Kelly Rectenwald, associate objects conservator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, stands next to the "Dancing Horse." It dates back to China's Tang Dynasty and was acquired by the museum from a private collector in the late 1990s.

When the Cincinnati Art Museum’s East Asian art curator Hou-mei Sung questioned the authenticity of a decorative tassel on an ancient horse sculpture, she turned to the University of Cincinnati chemistry department for answers.

Now, after nearly two years of speculation and a series of scientific tests, the mystery is solved.

Colleague Kelly Rectenwald, associate objects conservator, worked with UC assistant professor of chemistry Pietro Strobbia to determine the tassel, which made the horse look like a unicorn, didn’t belong. It was of different material and added much later to the sculpture, which dates to the Tang Dynasty 1,300 years ago.

The Art Museum has since removed the tassel from the horse.

Findings have been published in the journal Heritage Science.

The provenance

The "Dancing Horse" and other horse sculptures were commissioned for the express purpose of entombing them with royalty. Sung says Emperor Xuanzong from the 8th century loved horses so much he had more than 40,000. For one birthday celebration, he invited a troupe of 400 dancing horses.

“During the dramatic finale, one horse would bend its knees and clench a cup in its mouth and offer wine to the ruler to wish him longevity,” Sung says. “This became a ritual.”

The Cincinnati Art Museum obtained the "Dancing Horse" from a private collector in 1997. The sculpture had been broken and repaired a couple of times, according to Rectenwald, including the time it fell off a table.

“So, we have this history of damage and Pietro said, 'We can figure this out for you. We can let you know what these are made of and if they are recent additions.' "

How scientists determined the tassel was not authentic

Rectenwald, with degrees in chemistry and anthropology, drilled out tiny samples of the tassel and the horse and handed them over to Strobbia.

“The drill hole for each of the samples that we took was so miniscule that I didn’t even go into repair them afterwards," Rectenwald says. "They’re still there. They’re just so tiny that you can’t see them at all."

Strobbia grew up in Italy and has always had an interest in art. “I think I grew up a little spoiled coming from Rome," he says.

He and fellow researchers used cutting-edge techniques like X-ray powder diffraction, ionic chromatography, and Raman spectroscopy to determine the tassel was made of plaster, not terracotta, and was added to the sculpture using animal glue.

You can see the "Dancing Horse" in the Galloping Through Dynasties exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Jan. 1, 2023.

The Cincinnati Art Museum plans to continue collaborating with UC. The next mystery it wants to solve involves an object referred to as the Magic Mirror. You may remember WVXU reporting on it earlier this year. When placed in sunlight, the mirror seems to become transparent and projects a decorative Buddha design.

The Galloping Through Dynasties opened October 7 and runs through January 1, 2023
Ann Thompson
The Galloping Through Dynasties opened Oct. 7 and runs through Jan. 1, 2023.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.