Footsteps from a Vanished World the MFA's Collection Includes Fine Examples of European and American Paintings, Asian Art, and Ancient Egyptian Artifacts. Following This Five-Part Series, the Monitor Will Interview Curators at London's Tate Gallery. Series: Curators' Tour: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Part 3 of a 5-Part Series

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I only ever saw one other pair of boots like this one," Wu Tung says.

As Matsutaro Shoriki Curator of Asiatic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Mr. Wu carried through the acquisition of this rare early 11th-century artifact of the Liao Dynasty. It was added to the MFA's collection in June 1995.

Although the pair of boots Wu saw years earlier in North China were, he admits, "more elaborate than ours," nevertheless, "our pair is unique in the United States." Whereas the pair in China was found about 20 years ago in a royal tomb together with headgear and mask, the MFA's were in a collection in Japan. "They had been acquired in China during World War II," Wu says. "The Japanese have traditionally been avid collectors of Chinese artifacts. "I think someone of the nobility or aristocracy would have been buried in these costly boots. They are made in silver for two purposes: for lasting longer; and because silver, or gold, are precious metals and carry social status." In spite of the fact that they are size 8-1/2 ("rather large"), Wu identifies them as women's boots. "The decorations on them are of the phoenix. In Chinese art, the phoenix motif is just the opposite of the dragon motif. The dragon is usually identified with the male - king or emperor - whereas the phoenix is always associated with Her Majesty - queen or empress." He points out how "very well designed" the "shape and contour of the boots are. The stitchings that normally occur on a pair of leather boots are repeated on these silver ones." The craftsmen "actually went to the trouble of making a rather realistic imitation: Silver wire went through the holes - quite extraordinary." Wu first saw them at a London dealer's. "They were dirty. They had not been given a good boot-shining! They looked dull on the surface. Actually, they looked like lead. "But as soon as I lifted them - their weight gave away the fact that they were not lead. However, only after our laboratory did a thorough analysis did we realize that the silver they are made of is of a purity of more than 90 percent. The hammering is remarkable; they are not heavy or thick. "We are afraid to polish them; we don't want them to look as if they were just made yesterday. What we have done is highlight the gilt phoenix and ruyi-shaped clouds - 'auspicious' clouds - so they stand out quite well against the dull silver background." As to the silver background, Wu says: "I think it's better to leave the patina there." Wu describes the cultural background of such a pair of boots: "They were made under the Liao Dynasty, which was established in Northeast China by nomads who called themselves 'Khitans. …