As one of the world's premier art museums and home to such famed cultural icons as "Mona Lisa," the Louvre in Paris ought to have nailed the answer to the simple question, "What is a masterpiece?"

But no. When the museum posed that query to a bunch of its curators a few years ago, they were stymied. It wasn't that they had no answer, but that they had too many. Superlative craftsmanship, extraordinary design, great antiquity, rich materials, purity of form, artistic genius, originality, influence on other artists. All those qualities, and more, bubbled into the discussion.

"It became evident that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to articulate a definition of masterpiece that could be accepted universally," writes Louvre director Henri Loyrette in the catalog for "The Louvre and the Masterpiece," opening next Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 10, is the team's response to the quandary, an unusual selection of 62 choice objects from the Louvre -- paintings, prints and drawings, bronze and stone sculpture, antiquities, ceramics and decorative objects. Spanning more than 4,000 years, they illustrate how definitions of masterpiece have changed over the centuries. The stellar objects and their Parisian provenance put "Masterpiece" among the most exciting and important exhibitions ever staged at the Minneapolis museum.

They range from a tiny bronze perfume bottle made to honor Greek gods to a portrait head of an Egyptian pharaoh, Roman marble sculptures, drawings by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and paintings by stellar European artists including Vermeer, Chardin, Gericault and Ingres.

Each is a masterpiece in its field, as was obvious from the nervous flutter as Louvre curators unpacked each piece and supervised its installation in specially built cases and platforms at the Minneapolis museum recently. Every object had to be carefully examined to ensure that no damage -- chipping, flaking paint -- had occurred in transit from Atlanta, where the exhibition first ran at the High Museum, which co-organized it with the Louvre.

Evolution of the masterpiece

The term "masterpiece" originated in the Middle Ages, when apprentice artisans had to prove their skills by submitting exemplary work for approval by the guild that governed their trade -- carving, metalwork, enameling. If the piece demonstrated mastery of the craft, the apprentice would be promoted to master and authorized to train others.

Later the meaning evolved under the influence of connoisseurs, who might judge art on the distinctiveness of its design, or scholars who often concern themselves with the history and authenticity of a piece.

"Connoisseurship is knowing a masterpiece when you see it," said Matthew Welch, assistant director of the Minneapolis museum and curator in charge of the show. "It's really about training your eye."

One gallery will be filled with objects for visitors to study, compare and debate. Three pretty Turkish plates from the 1550s, for example, are all decorated with flower motifs, but one is bigger and bolder, with a lively peacock strutting amid a swirl of blue leaves and blossoms while the other two seem stiff and timid. All are rare and important, but the "Peacock dish" is the star.

A pair of life-size Roman statues of Aphrodite offer more eye training. Both are about 1,800 years old and depict a figure leaning against a pillar with left leg bent. The carving in one is crisp and so graceful that the figure appears draped in sheer linen, her elegantly sandaled foot peeping from beneath a fold of fabric. The other has a thick, elephantine foot and drapery so heavy she seems to be wearing meringue or frosting rather than clothes.

Fakes can fool the eye

The show includes some fakes, too. They illustrate the importance of scholarship in proving authenticity and connoisseurship in spotting what's right for the time.

One is a gorgeous incense boat made of rich blue lapis stone decorated with elaborate gold filigree, rubies, emeralds and pearls. A famous collector gave it to the Louvre in 1901, when it was assumed to be a 15th-century masterpiece. Then scholars noticed anachronisms that showed it to be a brilliant 19th-century forgery. It's still gorgeous, as is the pretty little blue glass head of an Egyptian girl that the museum purchased in 1923, assuming it to be about 2,200 years old. But some scholars doubted the head and finally, in 2002, the Louvre had it analyzed. X-ray emission tests proved that the cobalt oxide in the glass was modern and the piece a fake.

"It's very beautiful, but the issue of style comes in then," Welch said, noting the head's big eyes and pouty lips. "Once you know it's not Egyptian, it smacks of 1920s flapper."

Long-recognized masterpieces by established talents are the bulk of the show, but even their reputations have had their ups and downs. Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch painter whose light-filled portraits of daily life have inspired 20th-century novels and films ("Girl With the Pearl Earring"), was pretty much ignored until 1866, when a French scholar touted the works' profound humanism in an influential essay. Only about 35 Vermeer paintings survive, of which the Louvre has lent "The Astronomer" to the Minneapolis show.

"What I like about that picture is that it not only has the intimacy of Vermeer, but also embodies the scientific curiosity of the 17th century," said Michael Conforti, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. He added that it was "amazing" that the Louvre would lend the painting, which is "universally considered to be a great masterpiece. In my opinion, one doesn't have to be educated into an appreciation of that object; it has universal appeal."

Masterpiece defined

"Masterpiece" has its troublesome edge, though. Some contemporary scholars dismiss the term as an elitist designation, used to exclude whole categories of art or to lend an air of mystification to critical judgments. And the general public sometimes embraces certain works as "masterpieces" based mostly on their celebrity and fame. As every Louvre visitor knows, Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" is the museum's primo masterpiece, a status the 1503 painting didn't acquire until after it was spectacularly stolen a century ago. Mona's well-armored case will prevent any such caper now, but it also keeps most people from seeing anything but the flash of their cameras against the glass.

"Masterpiece is the most overused word in the art world," said Minneapolis collector Dar Reedy, whose purchases range from medieval illuminated manuscripts, to African tribal art, to post-World War II sculpture and painting. Dubbing something a "masterpiece" helps justify higher prices and, in the case of the Louvre show, signals the quality of the art, he said. But Reedy cautioned that everything done by a master such as Picasso or Mark Rothko is not necessarily a masterpiece.

"To me, a masterpiece is something that stands the test of time and is viewed as a masterpiece from generation to generation," Reedy said. "Secondly, it must influence generations of artists and change the way that people look at the medium -- be it painting, sculpture, decorative art or whatever. It must be so original that once you've seen it, you're indelibly influenced by its power, and any artist who goes in that direction is accused of studying under or being in the shadow of the original."

The power of the masters inspires only admiration in Michael Kareken, a professor of painting and drawing at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

"I'm really interested in traditional painting and art, so to me certain Vermeers or Rembrandts or Gericaults sum up what a masterpiece is," Kareken said. "They crystallize a whole set of artistic and cultural values and are technically brilliant above reproach. That's a pretty old-fashioned way of looking at things, but I'm such a romantic that I buy into the whole myth. I believe in the transformative power of art; I do believe that. And those paintings that move you so much words fail you -- those are the masterpieces."

A continuing education

Few Americans know the Louvre's collections as well as Michael Shapiro, director of the High Museum. In the past three years, the High staged nine Louvre exhibitions, a project that helped Atlanta boost its reputation and exposed the Louvre's collections to at least 1.3 million Americans who attended the shows.

Even Shapiro, an art historian, found himself puzzling over why certain objects were dubbed masterpieces, in particular a 200-pound bronze weight in the shape of an ankle bone that was made more than 2,000 years ago in what is now Turkey. It is not in the Minneapolis show, but it baffled Shapiro even after the Louvre's director "waxed eloquent" about it.

"But that's very healthy," Shapiro said. "We're all enslaved by our prior experiences. I might appreciate the Vermeer or Ingres or Gericault because I'm captive to my own knowledge base in European art history. But seeing some of the ancient objects has broadened my understanding and appreciation of the evolution of taste, scholarship and personal development. I love the idea that in looking at this exhibition, people can continue to develop and broaden their understanding of what a masterpiece can be."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431