Hunting wild animals, the symbol of man's prowess, has been, and is, the sport of kings. In the Sasanian world the hunt had sacred and imperial meaning, stressing the king's valor and power.

This royal entertainment was popular in Iran during the Sasanian dynasty, which flourished between 226 and 651 A.D. The Sasanians controlled the vast region linking Central Asia with the Mediterranean for more than four centuries. They traded with the Byzantines and the empires of the East including China. And they created an artistic tradition that influenced the neighboring civilizations and left a strong impact on later Islamic dynasties.

The opulence of the Sasanian court and its preoccupation with the imperial hunt still can be seen in the decoration on exquisite silver vessels and the monumental rock reliefs carved into the cliffs of Taq-i Bustan and Naqsh-i Rustam in Iran.

The Splendor of Sasanian art can be seen in an exhibition open at New York's Asis House Gallery through March 12. "The Royal Hunter: Art of the Sasanian Empire" consists of 89 rare and precious objects chosen from 24 collections in the United States, Europe and Iran by Prudence Oliver Harper, curator of ancient Near Eastern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sasanian silver, though not well-known, is in great demand by the conniseur, costing tens of thousands of dollars. It is sought by private collectors and public museums in the United States, Europe and Asia, mainly in Japan and Iran. The Iranians are the most avid buyers, building up the collections in their own country and paying the highest prices.

The increase in the demand for Sasanian silver has not only raised prices astronomically, but has also led to a vast number of forgeries. Authentication of Sasanian silver - weeding the imitations from the originals - is a major problem. The majority of the vessels was discovered accidentially and not found in scientifically recorded excavations. The lack of proper archeological datd and masses of undocumented material have caused scholarly disputes as to the provenance, chronology and authenticity of the pieces.

In recent years there has been extensive research devoted to the identification and authentication of Sasanian silver. The current exhibition and catalogue present the results of these studies.

The illustrated catalogue includes the history of the Sasanian dynasty, defining the styles, techniques and iconography found on different types of objects, and giving a detailed description of each piece. After closing in New York, the show will travel to Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (April 12-May 21) and the Clevland Museum of Art (July 4-Aug. 13).

The exhibition contains spectacular silver pieces, including plates depicting the king hunting; rhytons (drinking vessels) topped with animal heads; bowls with portraits of rulers, ceremonial or vintage scenes; vases and ewers adorned with hunting episodes, dancing females or fantastic animals. Also on display are gold and bronze objects, wool and silk textile fragments, glass and ceramic vessels, seals made of gemstones as well as architectural decoration executed in stucco or mosaics, representing the diverse techniques and materials employed by the Sasanian artists.

The highlights of the exhibition are the 26 hammered, decorated silver pieces. On some, the background was cut away to produce low relief. On others, separate pieces of silver were applied to stand in high relief. The details were added by further hamming and chasing. Most of the pieces were gilded with an amalgam of mercury and gold painted on the surface, for a sumptuous effect.

Several silver objects contain Middle Persian or Sogdian inscriptions; some give the name of the owners; other record the weight of the piece according to the Sasanian standard. The basic unit of weight was the drahm, borrowed from the Greek drachma, and later used in Arabic and persian as dirhem. The indication of the weight on the objects suggests there was strict government control on the distribution of silver.

These silver objects were highly prized in their time, often presented as gifts to foreign rulers and limitated by the contemporary silversmiths of neighboring lands. Many pieces were discovered outside Iran, in Armenia, Soviet Azerbaijan, Georgia and Afghanistan. They were also used as barter, reaching areas as remote as the northern shores of the Caspian Sea.

In this lush but scholarly exhibit, Harper carries on the hunt for the world of the Sasanian.