MMofA’s Tang Horse is more than 1,000 years old

Posted on: February 18th, 2020

The Mobile Museum of Art is committed to learning about, caring for, and preserving our permanent collection.

We have had this fired clay horse in our collection for 25 years, but until very recently, could not confirm that it was made during the Tang Dynasty in China.

The horse was given to us in 1984 by a Hollywood actor, Fred Gavin Gordon, who was unsure of its age and authenticity. He had been told by an art museum curator that the horse might be from the Tang Dynasty, but he was still skeptical. He wrote in a letter to our museum director, “The Tang horse (at least I call him Tang)… I felt, and always have, that it was a much later copy. Again, I find him handsome, he gets more pats and pats in my house than he would if he were alive.”

As part of our research into the collection, we asked an Asian art expert to look at the horse and give us an opinion. He suggested thermoluminescence testing. We followed his advice, and using instructions from a laboratory, sent some samples, carefully removed from the interior body of the horse, for the test.

Here’s how the laboratory explains the process:

“Samples of pottery, when heated to temperatures between 250 degrees Celsius and 500 degrees Celsius, emit a small amount of light. The physical effect is known as thermoluminescence. The amount of light is directly proportional to the age of the piece: the older the pottery, the more light that is emitted.

The physical mechanism responsible for the light emission is the release of energy trapped in the pottery material. This energy results from the absorption of radiation by the pottery material and its environment. The initial heating (the firing of the clay when the pottery was fabricated and subjected to heat for the first time) brings the energy level present in the artifact down to zero. From the moment of that reset, the pottery begins to accumulate energy again. The amount of this energy, directly proportional to the time until the next heating occurs – in our laboratory – creates the thermoluminescence effect that we measure with specialized equipment.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Gordon is no longer with us and will never know that his “pet” Tang horse was over 1,000 years old and not a reproduction! We continue to be grateful to him for this wonderful gift.