Yale and Peru edged closer to court over the weekend, as officials in the Peruvian government approved in principle the filing of a lawsuit against the University with the hopes of reclaiming Incan artifacts housed at Yale.
While Peru has not yet taken formal legal action, the decision of the country’s Council of Ministers to begin formally the process of selecting a lawyer comes after more than six months of threats from Peru that it would sue the University. The controversy surrounds Incan artifacts excavated by Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III between 1911 and 1915; Peru has maintained for nearly a century that it is the rightful owner of the objects and has vigorously sought their return in recent years.
The University, for its part, has hoped to resolve the matter without entering the courtroom. Last September, Yale hailed a memorandum of understanding signed between the parties as a new precedent for international collaboration. University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said in an e-mail message to the News on Sunday that, while Yale would defend itself against a lawsuit, the University still hopes not to find itself in court.
“We believe that a lawsuit does not best serve the interests of the public, both in Peru and internationally, or of posterity,” Robinson said, “and continue to believe that cooperation and collaboration would provide a better framework for satisfying the multiple interests in the archaeological material excavated by Bingham at Machu Picchu.”
While Peruvian officials have threatened a lawsuit since April, Yale officials said earlier this fall that they were hopeful the parties might be able to avoid legal action. Much of this optimism was the result of a meeting in late September that included, for the first time, Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde, the Peruvian foreign minister. Belaunde had never before been involved in the negotiations, and some at Yale saw his presence at the meeting in an optimistic light.
“The fact that the minister feels that it’s appropriate for him to intervene suggests that there is a desire to reach an understanding,” Richard Burger, the Yale archaeologist most closely associated with the artifacts, said last month. “Because if [Peruvian officials] wanted to go to court, they could have just left things as they were.”
But Belaunde’s involvement with the negotiations was brief; Peru’s new minister of labor and employment promotion, Jorge Villasante, has now been charged with overseeing the selection of a lawyer and the potential filing of a suit.
That selection will be easy for the Peruvian government to make, said one high-level government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. The official said the government is in the process of retaining William Cook, a lawyer at the Washington, D.C., firm DLA Piper. Cook has represented Peru in the negotiations for nearly a year.
In that time, the official has seen the government and Yale get closer and closer to court as the memorandum of understanding never became finalized and Peruvian politicians split apart over the question of Yale’s rights to keep some of the objects for up to 99 years while returning others at once.
On Sunday, though, Cook declined to comment to the News, saying only that he was awaiting his “instructions from Lima.”