Yale Daily News: talks stall and litigation more likely over Machu Picchu artifacts

A third round of talks last week between Peruvian delegates and officials from Yale University in New York to determine the future of archaeological artifacts taken from Machu Picchu by American historian Hiram Bingham nearly a century ago did not go well and both sides appear closer to taking the case to court, the Yale Daily News reported Wednesday.

The talks were “informative,” said Yale spokesman Tom Conroy in comments to the university newspaper.

“The absence of Hernan Garrido-Lecca, Peru’s chief negotiator with Yale, limited the extent to which the parties could advance the negotiations at that session,” he later added in email to the paper.

“There is a lot of distance between Yale and Peru right now,” added Richard Burger, the Yale archaeologist most closely linked to the artifacts.

Peru’s Health Minister Garrido-Lecca was to head the Peruvian delegation, but was prevented from going to New York for the talks because he had to stay in Lima to attend to a looming doctors’ strike.

According to a Peruvian official who spoke to the Daily News on condition of anonymity, the August meeting was just a “formality,” and Garrido-Lecca’s presence was probably superfluous as Peru has begun preparing for litigation.

“We haven’t said ‘we’ll see you in court’ yet,” the Peruvian official told Yale Daily News, “but we’re close.”

“Yale does not know what course the Government of Peru will take,” said Conroy. “But if a lawsuit is filed, Yale will defend the action.”

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.

And 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, has authorized its ambassador in the U.S. to hire lawyers for a lawsuit against Yale.

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