In court papers filed in federal court last Friday, Yale argued that a lawsuit by the government of Peru over ownership of ancient Inca artifacts should be dismissed in Connecticut court.
According to the papers, too much time has passed since Yale acquired the artifacts. Yale argues that Peru’s claim to the artifacts is no longer valid because of a Connecticut law that establishes a three-year statute of limitations which Yale argues applies to Peru’s claims.. Peru has responded that, under Peruvian law, claims like this one are not subject to such restrictions. If the federal court sides with Yale and dismisses Peru’s case, it would end a year-long legal dispute and an international property rights battle spanning almost a century.
In December of 2008, Peru first sued Yale for possession of artifacts taken from Peru by the scholar Hiram Bingham III between 1911 and 1915. The lawsuit sought the return of the ancient relics and more than $75,000 in damages for breach of contract, unjust enrichment and fraud. In 1921, Yale argues in Friday’s papers, the University returned dozens of boxes of those artifacts. Peru knew the University would keep the remainder, Yale’s lawyers claim. According to Friday’s filing, Yale then displayed the remaining pieces at the Peabody Museum and published books describing the pieces.
None of these actions met with any complaint from Peru at the time, Yale claims in the documents. In fact, Peru later invited Bingham back to the country and even named a highway after him. It was only in 2005 that Peru seriously tried to reclaim the items.
The lawsuit was nearly avoided when the dispute came close to a settlement in 2007. Yale agreed to give legal rights to some of the artifacts, which would have traveled in a joint exhibit funded by Yale and then returned to a museum in Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital. But Peru pulled out of the deal because of a disagreement over how many artifacts would be returned.
When Peru’s suit came at the end of the next year, Yale filed to move the case from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut, arguing that Washington had no jurisdiction over the matter. Peru responded to that motion, and Friday’s documents are a response to that response.
“In the 21st century, long after everyone with any personal memory of the expeditions had died, Peru claimed that Yale had not returned enough of the artifacts and demanded that it now return any artifacts that Bingham had exported from Peru,” Yale attorneys wrote in Friday’s documents.
But Peru maintains that it never gave up its ownership rights to the artifacts. In its lawsuit, Peru alleged that Yale has continued to hold the most culturally important relics found at the Macchu Picchu ruins illegally.
As for the statute of limitations, Peru argued that Yale never had legitimate ownership, so the time frame is not relevant.
“Yale’s mere retention of the artifacts establishes nothing,” Peru’s lawyer wrote in November, responding to Yale’s dismissal.
Peru claims it has government documents from Bingham’s original expedition under which he was allowed to excavate the artifacts, but Peru retained ownership and the right to demand their return at any point. These documents, Peru says, prove Yale is violating United Nations cultural property agreements by not returning the relics now that Peru has demanded them back.
Yale’s filing requested that the court hear an oral argument for the case.