National Geographic weighs heavily in favor of Peru in Machu Picchu collection dispute with Yale

The National Geographic Society insists Yale University turn over to Peru all artifacts taken from Machu Picchu by American historian Hiram Bingham nearly a century ago.

Though Yale recognized Peru’s title to the artifacts by signing a memorandum of understanding last September, negotiations are now stalled as Machu Picchu’s centennial “discovery” anniversary looms ahead.

“We were part of this agreement. National Geographic was there, we know what was said,” lawyer Terry Garcia, the Society’s vice-president, was quoted as saying by daily La Republica. “The objects were loaned and should be returned.”

National Geographic co-sponsored Bingham’s 1911, 1912 and 1914 trips that led to the findings of artifacts including necklaces, pots, plates, knives, silver shawl pins, animal bones, bottles and other ritual objects. Since they were carted out of Peru in 1912, the relics have been stored in Yale University’s basements and Peabody Museum of Natural History in Connecticut.

“Don’t hide behind the law to keep something you know isn’t yours,” Garcia said.

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 loan was later extended by 18 months, but Yale never returned the collection.

According to Garcia, a 1912 legislative decree includes a caveat that should put an end to the nearly century-long dispute: the Peruvian Government reserved itself the right to exact from Yale University and the National Geographic Society the return of the unique specimens and duplicates excavated from Machu Picchu at any time.

But Yale’s interpretation of this piece of legislation challenges Garcia’s analysis.

The decree, which gave Bingham authorization to excavate the ruins, did not revoke Peru’s 1852 civil code. So, Yale can legally keep the objects indefinitely.

And, Yale suggested, it could cause an unwanted precedent if the University were to return the artifacts, as other museums could stand to lose precious pieces from their collections.

The Greeks claimed the Elgin marbles from the British Museum in 1820 and Italy has requested that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art return historical objects including the Euphronios Krater, a 500 BC vase.

“This is ridiculous,” said Garcia, who has promised to help Peru in any way possible.

Last September, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Yale and President Alan García’s administration 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 in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

It was revealed that under the terms of the memorandum, Peru would receive fewer than 400 pieces to promote a traveling exhibit, whose ultimate destination would be a museum in Cusco, built to specifications determined by Yale. The Peabody Museum would retain the rest of the artifacts — including important pieces such as metal ceremonial objects.

In July 1911, Machu Picchu was “rediscovered” by Bingham after a native villager, Melchor Arteaga, told him where he could find the vegetation-covered ruins.

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