UNESCO official reportedly backs Peru’s demand for Yale to return Machu Picchu relics

The top representative of UNESCO in Lima said Sunday that Peru was well within its rights to demand Yale University return tens of thousands of artifacts and remains taken on loan nearly a century ago from the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, official state news agency Andina reported.

“The logical thing is for Peruvians to have access to the pieces, to know them,” Katherine Müller-Marin was quoted saying, adding that UNESCO has as one of its principles restoring archaeological treasures to their rightful owners. “The repatriation of archaeological pieces is a line of work that is developed to achieve the restoration of the pieces to their own sites of origin.”

For years Peru has haggled with Yale seeking the return of thousands of artifacts, including ceramics and human bones, that explorer Hiram Bingham dug up during three expeditions to Machu Picchu in 1911, 1912 and 1914. But serious negotiations did not begin until 2006, when Peru threatened to sue.

Peruvian President Augusto B. Leguia gave Hiram Bingham permission to temporarily export the objects for scientific study, with the agreement that the artifacts would be returned after one year. The time frame was later extended by 18 months. But Yale never returned the collection.

In September 2007, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Yale and President Alan García’s government for the return of the artifacts, but the terms and conditions of the accord came under scrutiny after former Peruvian first lady Eliane Karp, wife of García’s predecessor Alejandro Toledo, 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 fewer than 400 pieces for a traveling exhibit, 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.

A delegation from Peru’s National Institute of Culture, headed by Health Minister Hernan Garrido-Lecca, conducted a new inventory of the collection in March and reported back to Peru that the collection contained 46,332 artifacts and fragments — ten times larger than Yale had earlier acknowledged holding.

Peru sent Yale a new letter, saying it is still interested in collaborating with Yale in the scientific study of the objects, but only after the entire collection is returned, with no strings attached.

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