The Republic of Peru has quietly filed a lawsuit against Yale, officially turning a nearly century-long dispute over the rightful ownership of Inca artifacts into a legal battle.

By late Tuesday, Yale had still not been formally served with the 31-page complaint that was filed Friday in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. But the lawsuit — in which Peru asks for the immediate return to Machu Picchu of all the artifacts excavated by Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III — comes as a grave setback to University officials who had hoped to resolve the conflict amicably and now say the lawsuit has no basis.

The first page of a 31-page complaint filed against the University on Friday by the Republic of Peru.
The first page of a 31-page complaint filed against the University on Friday by the Republic of Peru.

“It’s very disappointing,” University President Richard Levin said in a telephone interview Tuesday night. “We worked very hard to try to steer a responsible course on this matter and we have been on numerous occasions within a hair’s distance of settlement with the Peruvians.”

Indeed, as late as September of last year it had seemed certain that Yale and Peru would reach an agreement over the fate of the artifacts. The memorandum of understanding signed between the parties then would have returned most of the objects to Peru within a few years, though some objects would have remained at Yale for up to 99 years.

Now, according to the complaint, Peru is seeking “the immediate return of all such property as well as damages that it has suffered on account of Yale’s persistent breach of its obligations and profit at the expense of the people of Peru.”

The lawsuit cites Peruvian law dating back to the 19th century as the basis for the nation’s claim to the objects that were excavated between 1911 and 1915 and are now housed at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. But Peru is not just seeking the repatriation of what the lawsuit calls “mummies, skulls, bones and other human remains, pottery and utensils, ceramics, objects of art and other items.”

Instead, Peru is also suing for compensation — the amount of which would be determined at trial — in connection with alleged breaches of agreement on Yale’s part. There are 14 causes of action in Peru’s complaint, including one that accuses Yale of acting fraudulently by not conducting sufficient scientific research on the objects.

In e-mails to the News, University General Counsel Dorothy Robinson declined to discuss the specifics of the lawsuit, saying that Yale had not yet reviewed the complaint in full.

“Clearly it is a case where there is good reason for both sides to reach a creative, constructive resolution,” Robinson said Tuesday. “We will, of course, defend the suit.”

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy also issued a statement Tuesday, in which he decried the Peruvian lawsuit.

“The claims asserted by Peru are barred by the statute of limitations,” Conroy said, “and would have been without merit even if they had been filed within the legal time period.”

William Cook, a partner with the Washington law firm DLA Piper who represents Peru, declined comment Tuesday.

Peru’s ambassador to the United States, Felipe Ortiz de Zevallos, said in an e-mail exchange with the News on Tuesday that the lawsuit is an “extremely sensible and complex” matter.

While de Zevallos declined to comment further, the matter is indeed complex, and has been for some time. September’s memorandum was never finalized as Peruvian politicians split over the question of how many artifacts should be returned immediately. Yale officials said they found it difficult to negotiate with Peru because of the country’s political landscape.

“The Peruvians have consistently backed off from their decisions and reneged on their positions,” Levin said Tuesday.

Ironically, the lawsuit itself comes as little surprise to Yale. Peruvian officials had hinted since April that they would sue Yale, and those intentions were bolstered by the country’s Council of Ministers in November, when it approved in principle the filing of a lawsuit. Peru’s previous administration, which left office in 2006, had also threatened legal action against Yale.


  • Francisco Flores-Baldo

    This is incredible. Yale should return those threasures to Peru as soon as possible and without any conditions. Bingham took all this artifacts almost 100 years ago. This was supposed to be a lend for 1 year which was later extended for 6 more months. Peru started demanding the return of the objects on 1920, but Yale just refused to do it. They do not even want to recognize that these objects belong to the peruvians. Yale also refuses to let Peru to make an inventory of their objects.

  • Yale2010

    If this were an Indiana Jones movie, Peru would be the corrupt archaeologist in cahoots with the Nazis and Yale would be Indy.

  • @Yale '80

    …right, because a cappella taps are public. And back when society tap day was public, it too was the biggest event all year. As the authors of this article say, it was the reason to come to Yale.

    Again, societies are important to those IN them, so of course you wouldn't find them all that beneficial if you were not. That's called exclusivity. That said, the same kind of camaraderie and loyalty that runs in a cappella is also the main draw of societies, so you should at least be able to understand the appeal, even if you didn't experience it yourself.

    Societies don't pretend to do anything for everyone else (not in the sense that SigEp does Relay or something like that, anyway), so everyone can stop declaring them irrelevant as some groundbreaking revelation. What's wrong with organizations catering to their own qualified members?

  • Alum 08

    I think it's all pretty hillarious. "We'll give them back, don't worry. We'll just keep a few for, say, 99 years"

    Yale - testicles of steel.

    Still, I don't think it's unreasonable for pieces that are being used or have been requested for research for aditional time. Not to mention taht we should mantain the right to tranfer locations to yale for research purposes or at least easier access to them than other researchers. Fact is, had Bingham not discovered them, there's a good chance the items would have been a) lost, b) sold, c) further damaged by time/misuse. They were all kept safe and under optimal conditions at Yale's expense, and while they do belong to Peru, we should get some perks, right?

  • Anonymous

    And Spain should return gold from the New World to Mexico? And the British Museum should return the Rosetta Stone? Besides, the Incans at Machu Pichu were there hundreds of years before Peru was even a country. And the site was forgotten about until Bingham brought it to worldwide attention; it is not like Bingham took directly from the Peruvian government.

    "Return those treasures to Peru as soon as possible and without any conditions"?!?!?! This is NOT that simple.

  • Jose Larco

    I think the following comments are out of order.

    Comment 4 The fact is that the loan was made with a contract recognized by National Geographic, co-sponsor of the trip. This can not be compared to the Spanish conquerors, unless you suggesting that Yale was a conqueror institution?

    Comment 3: Quote:" Fact is, had Bingham not discovered them, there's a good chance the items would have been a) lost, b) sold, c) further damaged by time/misuse. " Can you prove this fact? I think you can't. There are also examples of good museums in Peru, this is just plain arrogance from your part. And about conservation, this is not a service that was asked for the Peruvian government.

  • tammy

    i agree with #3 they didn't care about it before he brought it to everyones attention it would prolly of been sold lets remember peru is a poor country so they are only bitching cause they want money. possesion is 9/10ths of the law and they are buggin tell them that our country's welfare program supports 90 percent of the illegal immigrants so that sounds fair to me

  • R.C.L.

    In general, I would agree Jose and Francisco, but I am concerned about the use to which the materials will be put. Arguably, the U.S. has as much right to them as Peru has. The fact that there is a contract does not change the fact that these artifacts are Incan and not Peruvian. Peru has a difficult history with its indigenous population, no different than the U.S. Indigenous rights have been coopted and once again forgotten when it was politically expedient. Perhaps they should all be returned, but the proceeds from whatever Peru chooses to do with them (traveling exhibit, etc.) should actually be put towards supporting the indigenous population.

    Ultimately, though, this is not within Yale's purview, or even the U.S., to do for than suggest. The artifacts should return to Peru, and then hopefully democratic politics in Peru can take care of the remaining inequities. That doesn't change the fact that Peru's motives (i.e., those of the current administration) may be questionable and driven by politics over principle. What's new. It would be beyond hypocrisy for the U.S. to try and push indigenous rights and cultural preservation elsewhere, while failing at it here at home.

    But that doesn't mean we can't hope that things turn out better in Peru than here.

  • Alum

    to reply to Mr. José Larcos acusations of my comments on
    "There are also examples of good museums in Peru, this is just plain arrogance from your part. And about conservation, this is not a service that was asked for the Peruvian government."

    a) In no way did I intend to suggest that Peru didn't have good museums. I was simply stating that there is no guarantee that these would have been found any time soon (there weren't that many locally held initiatives at the time in search for these) and that the recovery of them spared them from further harm from the elements (or from those who would take them to sell and likely not preserve them as much as those in museums - in Peru or Yale - would). Though now that you mention it, at the turn of the century, to my knowledge there was only one large museum in Peru that could have hosted such a collection, and I'm not entirely sure what it's capabilities were at the time.

    Secondly, while Peru certainly didn't ask for Yale to conserve the pieces, they can certainly appreciate the value that was preserved in doing so, at the cost of Yale money. Like I said, I do think they should be returned, but I don't think it's unreasonable to request some time with pieces currently being studied (though not 99 years though).

  • Cristina Isabel

    If Peru insisted capriciously in keeping objects that belonged to your Indigenous culture (which existed before the U.S. was a country) and refused to give it back to you, how would YOU feel? I´m sure Yale must have invested a lot of money in studying and keeping the pieces (and Peruvians and people in general are thankful for it) but this amount must have been definitely recovered during the very many years Yale has refused to give them back and has insisted on keeping them as if they were their property. Peru should have filed this lawsuit earlier, TRUE, but this decision was delayed for many reasons, political and economical. Filing a lawsuit is very expensive, especially in your country, isn´t it? Furthermore, if Yale continues to act as a stubbern rich child by not returning the pieces, wouldn´t it be another example of imperialist conduct? Let´s be honest, this kind of conduct is far from how a prestigious university should act and it would be yet another example of what the world always criticizes about the U.S. Peru should be grateful for what Yale has done to take care of the pieces, TRUE. Peru should reimburse Yale for this, TRUE. Yale should reimburse Peru for not giving back the pieces when they were requested, TRUE. Both amounts of money should be compared in order to determine the amount of damages for both parts, TRUE. It´s not difficult to be impartial, both parts have done negative things (refusing to return the artifacts, not filing a lawsuit earlier, etc.) and both parts need to assume their responsibility in this matter. I just hope this matter can be impartially solved in the US, I believe it can. I am Peruvian and that does not stop me from thinking that my country hasn´t had enough determination in the past to claim what belongs to us. I have been to the US and I think it´s a beautiful country with cultural heritage as well and I´m proud to see you protect it. I just wish you could respect others´ cultures too.

  • Y11

    Yale is protecting and using these artifacts for research/display in a way Peru never could. It would be one thing if they were languishing in pieces in a basement, but they are much better off here.

  • papyruspapus

    The case of the repatriation of Macchu Picchu's artifacts to Peru is not the first one. There are recent examples of artifacts with real museum value that have returned to Peru (i.e. Moche's Lords of Sipan). No matter how well maintained and preserved are the Macchu Picchu's collection at Yale's Peabody Museum. A better host impossible.

    However, for some political reason the government of Peru claimed the artifacts and it is a legitimate action to do so. It is like a biological father claimed for his legitimate son. The ceramic vessels, stone tools, textiles and mummies all belong to the cultural patrimony of Peru.

    Put in this way, what would happen if for unknown reasons the Abraham Lincoln manuscripts have found in some foreigner county. So, the US probably will claim them because of its historical significance for the American People. Something similar is happening here.

    Good news or bad news the artifacts should return to Peru. Doing this will put the US and Yale in better perspective in agreement with the 21th century of indigenous rights.

  • @#7

    one can only hope that you are not really Richard Levin.

  • @11

    Lincoln comparison doesn't work because the artifacts are Incan, not Peruvian. A better comparison would be if valuable ancient Navajo artifacts were taken to Spain. In that situation (like in ours), I don't think the US should be able to sue and get the objects back because it has little to do with the US as a nation and is highly political. That said, perhaps Navajos should win if they filed the lawsuit themselves.

  • @#12

    Yeah, that would be ironic. But somehow I bet the RCL has more important things to do than troll the YDN comments …

  • Cristina Isabel

    This is to reply to Y11 (comment #10):

    I'm appalled to see such a narrow minded/probably rich kid's opinion. Yes Y11, pieces are really well kept at Yale! but question: are they rightfully yours? A comment like yours makes me think you put money over everything. So Yale is a huge, rich, well-developed university, perfect. If that's the case, then EVERY ARTIFACT found by an American in any country (especially a poor one) should definitely be mantained in the US and never returned because, "they are much better off" with you?!? RIGHT?

    Then the rest of the world that doesn't have as much money as the US shouldn't even dare to demand their property from you, oh Heil University and unique place in the world that can truly exploit and value the richness in artifacts that are not even part of your culture!?!

    People, this is outrageous!

    I'm sorry but it's disturbing to find egocentric comments that come from students of such a good university as Yale.

    Y11, if you really meant your comment, then "cultural heritage" means nothing to you and the richer are the only ones who can make decisions over other countries' belongings. Seriously, your way of thinking made me understand why it would be likely to see the US invade yet another country: because of ideas like yours, certainly.

    Oh, and one more thing, and this goes to Tammy, comment # 6:

    If you think Peruvians are just "bitching cause they want money", and "that our country's welfare program supports 90 percent of the illegal immigrants so that sounds fair to me" is a good argument to defend Yale's position, then all I can say is:

    God, could you help Tammy see the bigger picture? Could you help her realize that the real greed for more money was incubated in American banks and that is the reason for the world crisis now? They Really wanted money and look what they did to their own country
    (including the welfare programs). Is it fair Tammy?

    Universities such as Yale and Harvard are known for training some of the world's most important thinkers and researchers. I hope Yale can continue doing so but without stepping on other people's rights.

  • please

    Once again. I'd like to thank some of the previous posters for proving my point beyond a reasonable doubt. You compared a baseball commissioner to Stephen Hawking. This is the kind of confusion I was trying to avoid. There's a big difference between a baseball commissioner, an English teacher, a few architects, and somebody who elucidated the space-time structure of the universe, showing that the laws of general relativity imply an initial singularity often referred to as the Big Bang. Kurt Godel demonstrated that any mathematical structure robust enough to contain ordinary arithmetic is either inconsistent or incomplete. You offered William F. Buckley, a pompous idiot. Greatness, I suppose, is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Do you really think that in 300 years people will be pouring over the results of William F. Buckley and A.B. Giamatti? I suppose you do. Also notice the amazing lack of any serious scientific persona. There's a reason that the Physics Department isn't even in the top ten--not quite befitting Yale's general reputation. Anybody with a reasonable ability for analytic thought would find this place incredibly distasteful.

    As for Greenspan, I was putting him up as an example of the type of person that could easily have entered or exited a Yale secret society or something like it. He lives on a reputation of being clever in a field dominated by ideology and with scarce results and poor methods. This is the sort of field in which it would be very helpful to have secret society credentials. Let's consider math now:

    For those of you who are familiar with Ramanujan, it's very hard to imagine an extremely poor postal worker in India with no formal training in baseball commissioning being a baseball commissioner, being flown to the States by our greatest baseball commissioner because our greatest baseball commissioner realized that he could never commission as beautifully as Ramanujan. This is an important example to meditate on. In it is the key to understanding substantive differences between fields. If you understand it clearly, you will understand why we still study Euclid's theorems with great pleasure, whereas I defy you to name the results of the javelin commissioner presiding over the first Olympic Games. No doubt he was famous in his own time and many a numbskull conflated him and Euclid. I'm asking you to look back from 2500 years from now and understand that the derivation that black holes radiate (another result from Stephen Hawking) will inspire a sense of awe at the reach of the human mind. People who do those kinds of things very rarely have anything to do with secret societies and have openly shown their contempt for them.

    Fareed Zakaria? Austan Goolsbee? Solidly in the Greenspan category. Very, very solidly not in the Euclid, Feynman, Witten, Einstein, Godel, Newton, etc. category. Are you serious? A freaking talk show host?

    Do you think Fareed Zakaria and Austan Goolsbee want some jerk embarrassing them by comparing their intellectual results to Andrew Wiles' proof of the Fermat Theorem?

    This amusing little discussion has made it fairly clear that mass education is limited by the intellectual level of the participants. You all presumably have a high school education? You didn't learn the difference between fame and/or success and intellectual product? That's totally amazing to me.

    What I would like you to think about is how so many extremely talented thinkers come through this part of the country and manage specifically to avoid the secret societies. It simply can't be random. This is, after all, one of the most celebrated seats of learning in the world.

    Figuring out that there had to be a Big Bang if general relativity is strictly correct--now that's exclusivity.

    I'm surprised no one brought up J.W. Gibbs. That's probably because he doesn't have a talk show. Apparently when Scull and Bones was twenty minutes old, he used to hang out there. I guess that's the last interesting conversation that took place there.

  • Y12

    Whatever happened to the victor go the spoils? If a Peruvian explorer had found a bunch of American artifacts before we were a country and now refused to give them back, that would be fine by me as well. Yale found them, Yale took them, Yale has them. End of story.

  • Bloah

    I wonder what you would say if a burglar broke into your house and plundered away all the valuable goods (including family heirlooms). Let's say you have a chance to put this burglar on trial. I bet you wouldn't let let the burglar leave on the premises that "victor go the spoils"…

    That aside, I say that Yale should keep the artifacts. Why? Though Peru's claims are true, it should also be noted that cultural plundering has been rife since forever. The Romans plundered the Greeks. The Japanese plundered the Koreans. The Europeans plundered the Africans/Americans.
    Fact of the matter is, had a poor country like Peru kept the artifacts for itself, they would most probably have fallen in a state of disrepair, and would most likely been sold away by corrupt government officials or by a desperate curator.

    This comment comes from a Korean who resents, but acknowledges the Japanese plunder of Korean artifacts (in fact, Koreans still wage legal war on these matters today)

  • Y '11

    The artefacts should be returned, but only if there is a specific museum space that can house them immediately. Just as Greece now has the capacity to hold the Elgin Marbles in the Acropolis Museum, Peru must have the capacity to hold these artefacts.

    However, to argue that Yale should pay Peru compensation is a tad ridiculous. Compensation for what? It is unlikely that Peru has necessarily lost anything (not just money) by not having these articles in Peru. Indeed, they have most probably contributed to the notoriety of the country (as Bingham's expeditions certainly did) and have brought wealth through tourism and a greater respect for Peruvian Culture worldwide. The recent action by the Peruvian goverment, whilst slightly over the top, will provoke a response from the University - hopefully in Peru's favour, but conceivably not. Peru should allow researchers to finish their work, but demand that any new research must begin when the objects are in Peru.

    P.S: However, I do believe that Yale should be the ones in charge of returning the objects to Peru.

  • @17

    You started off so well — and leaped into an amoral abyss.

    You were completely right to compare this to burglary, and then to widespread plunder.

    As for your comment "Fact of the matter is, had a poor country like Peru kept the artifacts for itself, they would most probably have fallen in a state of disrepair, and would most likely been sold away by corrupt government officials or by a desperate curator."

    See #15. Besides which, it's factually false that a corrupt official in these ambiguous third world nations would have necessarily sold it. Take some time, travel. Throughout Latin America (and the entire world) there are hundreds of examples of mueseums and cultural centers that celebrate their heritage. Do you honestly think culture or mueseums are some kind of American or Western concept? Do you honestly think we don't have corrupt officials, here?

    But because its happened in the past, it should be perpetuated? Dear G-d! You're a Yalie, you have the advantage of spending all your time thinking, and then that's the best you come up with?!

    To review other things that have happened a lot since 2000 BC: monarchies, crucifixtions, rape, pillage, mass murder.

    I don't mean to be overdramatic, but you're argument is completely specious. I honestly think that there must be some other reason why you believe they should remain at Yale (perhaps something about public scholarship?). But please, take a moment, and do think again.

  • Anonymous

    It's cute, the only time you will ever see yalies get at arms about property rights, it's for some third world country.

  • @20

    Oh, yes, OH YES, right on, oh god OH GOD!

    The IRONY! Bleeding-heart, commie yalies promoting property rights! Because usually, you know, they're, like, you know, tearing down walls and demanding that corporate farms be distributed in massive agraian reform policies to poor urbanites who've never ridden on a tractor in their lives.

    Because it's cute, you know, to see conservatives at Yale imagining their more liberal classmates as so much more to the left than they are; and better, imagining that property rights are somehow something only conservatives care about.

    No, let's step back. We love property rights, too. We just don't hold to them as a holy grail, especially when they aren't applied equally, when they apply to corporations and people with connections, but not to someone whose house will be bulldozed to make way for a cute, cute strip mall.


  • Juan Jose

    In Peru it could have a better use because there are a lot of tourists visiting Machu Pichu every year, and this artifacts could bring more visitors to Machu Picchu and make the visit to machu picchu more exciting. But if Yale University dosn't want to give it to Peru, lets wait what the law finally say.

  • ARCG

    I took an undergraduate/graduate archaeology course several years ago that had a regular lab component - and almost all the artifacts we studied were from Machu Piccu. So as a student I have definitely benefitted from the collection, and hope that Peru can see the serious, inspirational and culturally sensitive scholarship that Yale has been able to do with the artifacts. Of course, many of the Macchu Piccu artifacts are broken down for analysis, etc. but overall, they are well preserved and organized. That said, the artifacts belong to Peru. This is the bottom line, so hopefully a balance can be reached between Peru learning to appreciate Yale's work on their culture and history, and Yale returning everything to Peru as soon as possible.

  • Anonymous


    Your hypothetical situation is in no way similar. The indigenous population of the United States was polyglot, extremely diverse, and widespread. The Incas helped define modern Peruvian history because they dominanted and subjucated most other indigenous populations and crafted a unified empire. Incan history is crucial to Peruvian history. While the current (and original) ruling classes of Peru were by no means friendly to the indigenous population, this is not to say that there is not a certain amount of respect associated with the resitance to Spain's imperialistic efforts…which today manifest themselves in Yale's view that "we'll take care of them better than you." That is an egregious statement. Peru certainly has the facilities to house these objects. If a Yale student wishes to study them, he should apply for grant money to go visit them at the original site.

  • Bob

    Peru wants 'em? Let them come and take them. If they can't, then tough. The world is a tough place, and there's no reason we should waste time on the pretense that those without the military power to back up their demands should be paid attention to in the slightest.

  • Anonymous

    Just came back from Peru & I have to tell you Yale is really looking bad in this situation.

    I'd like to think reasonable minds from Yale could work out a more pleasing scenario, than being sued & playing the part of a robber who refuses to return another countries treasure.

    Yale is better than this (I hope)

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