Imagine a treasure chest unlike any other, overflowing with 18,000 precious objects. Then imagine trying to choose eight—just eight—of the most special objects among them.
That image was in my mind during a recent visit to San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, which faced exactly this situation. To celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2016, the museum—the country's preeminent treasure house of Asian visual arts—decided to highlight eight masterpieces with redesigned cases, lighting and information panels. Sprinkled throughout the permanent collection galleries, these eight superstars were chosen for their beauty, originality, historical importance, and rarity.
I decided to take a whirlwind tour of Asian art by strolling the galleries for an hour and stopping to study each of the eight. The item pictured above—no bigger than a napkin ring—is one I'd never noticed in all my previous visits.
It's an exquisite white jade cup with calligraphic inscriptions, probably from Uzbekistan around 1440-1460. The new lighting of this exceedingly rare object made it seem to glow from within.
Farther on, I came across the earliest dated Buddha sculpture in the world, a gilded bronze Chinese work from A.D. 338 whose new display now allows it to be viewed in the round.
Among the other masterpieces I encountered were a pale celadon stoneware ewer from Korea, a pair of carved sandstone statues from Cambodia depicting Hindu deities, and another Buddha statue, this one in sandstone from India. Amazingly, all of these are at least 1,000 years old.
And then there was one of my favorite objects in the museum, this amusingly rotund and remarkably friendly looking gilded bronze rhino from China. It happens to be 1,600-plus years old.
After my little tour, I stopped by the museum's cafe to try their new ice cream, created specially by San Francisco's Humphry Slocombe. Blending pureed adzuki bean—Japanese sweet beans—and crumbled Chinese almond cookies, the ice cream may not have been a masterpiece on the order of what I'd just seen, but it was still pretty darn good.