Showdown over national cultural patrimony and private property opens third round as Peru and Yale officials meet in New York

After months of silence and stalled talks, Peruvian delegates and officials from Yale University met Tuesday for a third round of negotiations at the Permanent Mission of Peru to the United Nations in New York to determine the future of thousands of archaeological artifacts taken from Machu Picchu by American historian Hiram Bingham nearly a century ago.

Peru’s demand for the return of the relics comes ahead of the 2011 centenary of Bingham’s re-discovery of the sacred Inca Ruins.“The Yale collection was legally excavated and exported by Hiram Bingham in the early 20th Century,” reported Yale Tuesday in an official statement regarding the discussions with the government of Peru. “Yale remains willing to pursue discussions with Peru beyond Tuesday’s meeting, as it believes a mutual agreement is attainable and that a lawsuit is not warranted.”

The Peruvian delegation is headed by Health Minister Hernán Garrido Lecca, and includes the National Culture Institute’s Director, Cecila Bákula, and the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Cultural Division, ambassador Liliana Cino.

Daily El Comercio reported that Yale has not said who will represent it during the talks, but Barbara Shailor, who administers all of the university’s museums, has traditionally headed negotiations.

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.

National Geographic, which in June insisted that Yale University turn over to Peru all artifacts taken from Machu Picchu, co-sponsored Bingham’s trips that led to the discovery 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.

Peru contends that it lent the artifacts to Yale and that the university has failed to return them — a position that National Geographic endorses.

A 1912 presidential decree authorized Bingham’s excavation, Peruvian officials argue, allowing him to bring the material to Yale for scientific study with the agreement that the artifacts would be returned after one year. And the contract, which was later extended by 18 months, also gave the Andean country the right to request that Yale University and the National Geographic Society return certain “unique” or “duplicate” objects excavated from Machu Picchu, without specifying a specific time period for such a request to be made.

But Yale rebuffed Peru’s claim,  and maintains a different interpretation of the legislation.

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

“Peru’s Civil Code of 1852, in effect at the time of Hiram Bingham’s 1912 expedition, permitted the finders of such artifacts to keep them,” Yale officials have contended.

And, Yale assures, the university’s entire collection is exclusively comprised of artifacts excavated during the 1912 expedition, to which it has full title, as all material excavated on Bingham’s last trip was returned to Peru between 1921 and 1923, after a series of extensions.

But, according to the National Geographic Society, only about half of the 1914-15 materials were returned to Peru in 1921, and no document records the return of the remaining objects from that expedition.

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

Yale has 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.

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 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 Health Minister Hernan 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.

Then on August 16, just days after the Council for the Defense of Cusco’s Natural and Cultural Heritage staged a rally in Cuzco’s main plaza to demand the return of artifacts, García authorized Peru’s ambassador in the U.S. to hire lawyers for a lawsuit against Yale.

“The logical thing is for Peruvians to have access to the pieces, to know them,” Katherine Müller-Marin, a top representative of UNESCO in Lima has said, adding that the organization has as one of its principles restoring archaeological treasures to their rightful owners.

Sharing is caring!

Comments are closed.