Foreign minister: Peru on solid legal ground for court claim against Yale for Machu Picchu artifacts

Peru’s legal case against Yale to retrieve thousands of archaeological artifacts taken from Machu Picchu by American historian Hiram Bingham nearly a century ago is solid and would integrate the full scope of international law, Peru Foreign Affairs Minister José Antonio Belaunde said.

“It is clear that if we go to trial, Yale will have to take out whatever it has hidden up its sleeve to maintain ownership (of the artifacts),” said Belaunde in comments to state news agency Andina. “This can’t surprise us, but Peru’s claims are stronger because (the artifacts) were a loan and (the loan was conditionned) to a set time period.”

Peru never relinquished its title to the artifacts in the 1990s, which is one of the Andean country’s most convincing arguments, added Belaunde.

“We have been thorough in this process to retrieve the artifacts of our (cultural) patrimony that were carted out illegally,” said Belaunde. “From January to August we have retrieved 127 archeological artifacts from Germany, the United States and New Zealand.”

This issue is very complicated, said Belaunde, and if dialogue keeps stalling, the only viable alternative will be via the judicial route.

Belaunde’s declarations come on the heels of a third round of talks between Peruvian delegates and officials from Yale that took place in New York last month. The talks did not go well, and both sides appeared closer to taking the case to court.

For years Peru has haggled with Yale seeking the return of thousands of artifacts that Bingham dug up from some 170 tombs during three expeditions to Machu Picchu in 1911, 1912 and 1914.

In September 2007, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Yale and President Alan García’s government for the return of the artifacts. But that step forward took the negotiations two steps back when the terms of the accord came under scrutiny by former Peruvian first lady Eliane Karp, wife of García’s predecessor Alejandro Toledo. She wrote a Feb. 23 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times sounding the alarm that Peru was getting shafted.

It was revealed that under the terms of the memorandum, Peru would receive only 384 “museum quality” pieces for a traveling exhibit over two years, whose ultimate destination would be a museum in Cusco, built to specifications set by Yale. The Peabody Museum of Natural History in Connecticut would retain the rest of the artifacts — including ceramics, human bone fragments and metal ceremonial pieces – and usufructory rights over the materials for 99 more years.

Negotiations turned sour in March after a delegation from Peru’s National Institute of Culture, headed by Garrido-Lecca, conducted a new inventory of the collection and reported back to Peru that the collection contained 46,332 artifacts and fragments — ten times larger than Yale had earlier acknowledged holding – and then threatened litigation in April.

A month later, in June, the National Geographic Society’s Executive Vice President, Terry Garcia, endorsed the Andean country’s contention that it lent the artifacts to Yale and that the university has failed to return them.

“We were part of this agreement. National Geographic was there, we know what was said,” Garcia told daily La Republica. “The objects were loaned and should be returned.”

Though Yale reported in late August that it “remains willing to pursue discussions with Peru … as it believes a mutual agreement is attainable and that a lawsuit is not warranted,” the University hired Enrique Ghersi, a Lima-based lawyer, to provide it with legal counsel.

Peru, whose demand for the return of the relics comes ahead of the 2011 centenary of Bingham’s re-discovery of the sacred Inca Ruins, responded by authorizing its ambassador in the U.S. to hire lawyers for a lawsuit against Yale.

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