In the early decades of the European exploration of the New World, the Spanish conquistadors searched for seven legendary cities of gold. In Peru, they found one, the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco, which, in their greedy delight, they not only looted, but, in effect, melted as well.

A current exhibit through Jan.15 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, "The Golden Treasures of Peru," resurrects some of this lost grandeur in a collection of 225 gold objects the Spanish did not find.STGold jars and beakers for home use, gold death masks and ritual knives, large necklaces of hollow gold balls, ceremonial gold arms and even a poncho of 13,000 gold scales recreate, according to assistant curator Craig Morris," one of the finest traditions of gold working in the ancient world." In a darkened hall, inside their light brown display cases, and with music from original instruments playing in the background, the gold objects do seem to transport, or at least refresh, bu contact with strange and sometimes terrifying perceptions of beauty.

Gold was in constant use in Peru, not as money or barter but as decorative material for political, religious and social purposes. The large number of beakers in the exhibit, for example, were used by noblemen to enchance their prestige in the customary drinking of the Peruvian chica, or maize beer. Gold tweezers for plucking hair - the Incas, like all Amerindians, did not have to shave - and gold pins to keep hair in places testify to the omnipresence of gold, and, in objects with added animal details, to the ingenuity of the craftsmen shaping them.

The exhibit covers the period from 200 B.C. to 1532 A.D., the latter date fixed as the time of the Spanish conquest. The stars of the show are actually not the famous Incas.They produced gold in enormous quantities and sizes, most found and melted by the Spanish, or extorted in the $28 million ransom of the king, Atahualpa, whom the consquistadors nevertheless murdered. Smaller objects from earlier cultures were unnoticed or undiscovered in remote areas or burial sites. In the temple in Cuzco, for example, there existed a giant gold representation of the sun as a human face, which blazed forth to inflame Spanish hearts. Now only it prototype remains, a gold mask from the Nazca culture, about a millenium before.

The Peruvians knew of casting techniques, but preferred to limit their art to hammering and joining the metal, and exercised their ingenuity most by added naturalistic detail. Many of the beakers and jars from the Chimua culture (circa 1200 A.D.) are adorned with human and various animal shapes, such as the Andean condor, or a dove with a spout on its back; a long thin gold tube, of unknown use, has a beautiful tiny gold bird poised delicately at an end.

According to Craig Morris, such earlier cultures as the Chimu produced works of such greater diversity than the Incas "since in periods of empire there is usually less leeway for individual expression." Most of the animal details seem somewhat standardized, he said, as "concrete expressions of origin myths in the animal world," but the multitude of shapes seem to indicate "individual variation on ritual tradition." Morris concluded, "It is a difficult question of anthropology," whether this can be called 'art' in our sense of the terms."

But it seemed clear the museum believes the spirit of beauty was alive in ancient Peru. The exhibit is supplemented by pottery and examples of Peruvian weaving, such as the Paracas textiles, called the "Bayeux tapestries of the new world." They are 10 feet by 4 feet carpets of macaw feathers, arranged in solid alternating blocks of bright, blue and yellow. The same intense colors and bold designs in the gold and textiles speak of people close to the absolutes of life in nature.

Giant wall photographs are doubly impressive since they record such Peruvian grand gestures as the high and long hidden city of Macchu Picchu, or the great hummingbird designs on the lowlands that have figured so prominently in Isak Dinesen's "Chariot of the Gods." According to Craig Morris, Macchu Picchu was chosen not just for its secrecy, but for "magnificence of view."

From their dramatic architecture to the melted city of gold to the remaining small gold objects, Peruvian cultures exhibit, in Morris' words, "a thorough appreciation of the spectacular in nature." It is this spirit that explains the mystery of the hummingbirds - claimed by Dinesen to attract extraterrestrial space ships. It is that spirt, in Morris's view, that explains the golden age of their art, not, as Dinesen suggests, any knowledge gained from close encounters with UFO's. Believing Dinesen is not only less rational but really less emotionally inspiring than accepting "Golden Treasures of Peru" as evidence of something powerful but unknown in the nature of earth-bound men.

The exhibit after leaving New York Jan. 15 will travel to Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit.