Ceria-supported gold catalysts before and after leaching by NaCN were investigated by X-ray absorption spectroscopy at the Au LIII edge. After gold leaching, isolated gold cations remain in close interaction with the support. These ions form an ideal precursor to very small clusters of a few gold atoms upon reduction. The resulting gold clusters exhibit a very high intrinsic activity in the hydrogenation of 1,3-butadiene, which is at least one order of magnitude higher than that of the nanometre-sized gold particles in the non-leached parent catalyst. These findings point to a very strong structure sensitivity of the gold-catalyzed hydrogenation of dienes.