In what might be its most significant concession to Peru since 1912, Yale will allow the country to see a full inventory of the artifacts it has kept in New Haven since Hiram Bingham III brought them back from Machu Picchu nearly a century ago.
The breakthrough in negotiations, confirmed Friday by Yale officials and announced Thursday during an unrelated press conference in Lima, is not only important in that it could lead to the return of certain artifacts Peru officials have been requesting since the mid-1910s but also because it indicates that relations between Yale and Peru have improved under the recently installed government of President Alan García.
Reached at the Peruvian Embassy in Washington D.C., Press Counselor Vladimir Kocerha dismissed any possibility that his country would sue Yale — a reversal of the policy of past Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo.
“There have been meetings, and progress has been done,” Kocerha said. “Things have changed since last year: a new government is in place, you have a new ambassador, a new policy.”
Asked whether Peru would consider suing Yale if its one-time demand for artifacts was not fulfilled, Kocerha suggested such a move would be out of the question.
“Why would we sue Yale if we’re talking to them?” he said. “If somebody had that idea before, I’m telling you: that’s a previous administration, and we’re not pursuing that policy.”
In early June, Garcia appointed his housing minister, Harvard graduate school alumnus Hernán Garrido-Lecca, to reach out to Yale. Now, Yale officials say, talks are progressing amicably — although they deny press reports that they have given Peru the title to the treasures, which amount to thousands of rare and precious jewelry, relics and human remains taken shortly after Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu.
In an e-mail Friday evening, Yale President Richard Levin said talks “restarted late in the spring,” when he personally wrote to the new president “suggesting that we resume discussions.”
“We made progress in June, and we expect to make further progress when a delegation from Peru comes here to continue discussions in September,” Levin said.
University General Counsel Dorothy Robinson, who visited Peru with two faculty members in June, said Friday that the University is moving towards a resolution with Peru.
“We believe this is a good time to reach a resolution with Peru over the artifacts excavated by Bingham in Machu Picchu,” Robinson said. “We have found Minister Gerrido-Lecca, who is leading the effort for Peru, to share our sincere interest in an amicable and creative resolution. We have discussed some very promising ideas with him and his delegation.”
The dispute became public in December 2005, when Peru threatened to sue the University over the artifacts. Peru claimed then that Bingham had promised to return the artifacts he excavated from Machu Picchu shortly after his expedition was over.
But Robinson maintains that the objects still in Yale’s archives are not subject to that restriction.
“This is not an admission that the artifacts should have been sent back earlier. We believe that the artifacts that were subject to an 18 month limitation were sent back long ago,” she said, adding that despite “various press accounts,” Yale has not given Peru the title to the artifacts.
The dispute has led to large-scale protests in Peru and sparked the outrage of the National Geographic Society and several other well-known archeologists worldwide. The New York Times Magazine printed a cover story about the controversy earlier this summer, which prompted passions among some in Peru to flare up temporarily.
The author of that story, Arthur Ludlow, said Friday that the dispute would always be more of an issue in Cuzco, the major city closest to Machu Picchu, than in the Peruvian capital of Lima.
“It certainly appears to be a bigger issue in Cuzco than in Lima,” he said. “The Cuzcenos think of themselves as being a direct continuation of the people of the Inca, whereas Lima was a Spanish-colonial city.”
When relations were tenser, Yale professor Richard Burger — who manages the artifacts with his wife, Yale professor Lucy Salazar – accused Peru’s last first lady of politicizing the matter and noted that the artifacts were safer in New Haven than South America.
Burger, who is on academic leave, could not be reached for comment. Robinson said he is working on another archeological site in Peru at the present time, a sure sign of improved relations between the university and the country. Burger has historically been one of the most outspoken critics of Peru’s claims to the artifacts.
Reports of Yale’s promise to inventory the artifacts came during a visit to Peru this week by Karen Hughes, the United States’ under secretary of state for public diplomacy. Her visit was in part to announce that the United States would return unrelated pre-Colombian artifacts to Peru, which were recovered after an anti-smuggling agreement was struck between the two nations.
At a small press conference with local reporters on Thursday, Cecilia Bakula, the head of Peru’s National Institute of Culture, fielded one inquiry about Yale.
“The relationship is moving forward like never before, towards an understanding,” she said.
In response, Hughes praised the recent progress.
“We are delighted these conversations have taken place and we hope they can be resolved in a satisfactory manner that takes into account the interests of both sides,” she told Reuters.
Dan Martinez, press secretary for the U.S. Embassy in Peru, said Friday that the U.S. position “has been to try to encourage the two sides to arrive at some mutually agreeable arrangement.”
“We look forward to some kind of a solution being worked out,” said Martinez, who added that although the possibility of a lawsuit did not come up during the press conference, “this process has sort of been reenergized, and so it would seem that litigation would be, for now, off the table. Anytime you can stay out the courtroom and resolve disputes amicably, it’s better.”
Several years ago, the Peruvian government asked the United States to intervene in the dispute by encouraging Yale to hand over the artifacts. They did so — with the support of Yale alum George W. Bush ’68 — but rather than demanding they turn over the artifacts, the U.S. urged Yale to reach a compromise resolution.
Bingham, who was a Yale professor, made several excavations with Yale students to Peru before he became a top general in World War I, but according to Robinson, the only artifacts being discussed are those recovered at Machu Picchu, “not artifacts that he purchased or that were given to him” — a point on which there is not universal agreement.
Chris Heaney ’03, who researched the dispute on a Fulbright Scholarship, said Friday that the possibility of handing Peru title to the artifacts and the concession of the inventory are “huge admissions for Yale.”
“If the reports are true, I think it shows good faith on Yale’s part,” he said. “Whether or not Peru will accept Yale’s offer is another question… It’s still up in the air as to where this is going to go next.”