Alumni demand artifacts’ return

Yale’s reluctance to return a trove of artifacts to Peru undermines the University’s efforts to build partnerships abroad, 23 alumni who reside in Peru wrote in a letter to University President Richard Levin last month.

The authors of the letter represent the majority of the 43 alumni living in Peru, Susan Rolfe ’89 said. Rolfe has lived in Peru since 1994, and now coordinates the local Yale Alumni Association. The letter urges Levin to hasten the return of the artifacts and resolve the lawsuit currently pending in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

“I think that we’re raising a legitimate point here about whether this is in the interest of Yale and if this is the right kind of behavior for the university,” Fredrick Truslow ’61 said. Truslow, along with Roberto Zalles ’61 and Rolfe, helped to organize fellow alumni who live in Peru to write the letter.

Explorer Hiram Bingham 1898 brought the artifacts from the ancient city of Machu Picchu back to Yale in 1912. After decades of dispute, Peru and Yale entered negotiations about the return of the artifacts in 2006, with Peru claiming that Bingham was given the items on loan. When talks stalled, the country filed a lawsuit against the University in December 2008. Yale moved to dismiss the lawsuit in January, claiming that the three-year statute of limitations period during which Peru could have asked for the return of the artifacts expired decades ago, and that Peru no longer has legal ownership over the artifacts.

Levin said Yale remains open to negotiation with Peru over the artifacts’ return, but he added that Yale has reached agreements with Peru twice in the past. Both of those times, Levin said, Peru backed out.

“We’re happy to start with the agreement we reached before and try to understand if any of those terms need modification,” he said.

The alumni’s recent letter to Levin will not change Yale’s legal strategy, University General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said in an e-mail Saturday. Robinson said Yale has long sought a cooperative resolution to the dispute — something she said the letter-writers may not fully appreciate.

But four alumni interviewed questioned whether Yale’s handling of the issue is in the University’s best interests.

John Bingham ’61, grandson of the famous discoverer, said he fears Yale is missing an opportunity to prove its commitment to working with other countries.

“I’m hoping that this particular situation won’t foul Yale’s reputation in dealing with cultures and other nations,” Bingham said.

Truslow said the statute of limitations argument, if successful, will be a “knockout blow” legally to the country of Peru, but it will not calm the anger Peruvians feel towards Yale, and may have lasting repercussions for the University’s image abroad.

If Yale does not return the artifacts now, the opportunity for amicable resolution may close for good, Truslow said. Peru’s presidential election is coming up in 2011, and in the nationalist fervor of an election, candidates may portray Yale in a very negative manner, Zalles said. Yale may face an administration less willing to cooperate with the University in returning the objects, he added.

Truslow compared the dispute to the ongoing one between Greece and the United Kingdom over the Elgin Marbles, stone friezes from the Acropolis in Athens currently held in the British Museum.

“It will be seen by many as a rich nation beating up a poor nation,” he said.

Peru will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Machu Picchu’s discovery in the summer of 2011.

Comments