Returning to Machu Picchu

After almost a century of conflict, the dispute between Yale and Peru over artifacts from Machu Picchu is ending.
After almost a century of conflict, the dispute between Yale and Peru over artifacts from Machu Picchu is ending. Photo by Sarah Nutman.

This is a three-part series exploring Yale’s decision to return artifacts from Machu Picchu to Peru: the history behind it, the negotiations leading up to it, and its ramifications. Part 1 investigates the century-long conflict between the University and Peru over the artifacts, which Hiram Bingham III 1898 brought to Yale nearly 100 years ago. (Read part 2 and part 3.)

The corner of Room 188 in building A21 on Yale University’s West Campus is filled with crates marked “fragile” and destined for Peru. Over the next weeks and months, between now and the end of 2012, thousands of objects excavated from Machu Picchu nearly a century ago will be carefully packed. In March, the first set of objects will be shipped by plane to Lima. By July 24, the 100th anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s III 1898 arrival at Machu Picchu they will be in Cusco, capital of the former Inca empire, and the waypoint for travelers headed to the great citadel.

By the end of 2012, Yale plans to send thousands of artifacts originally from Machu Picchu back to Peru.
By the end of 2012, Yale plans to send thousands of artifacts originally from Machu Picchu back to Peru.

On Friday, University President Richard Levin and Víctor Aguilar, the president of the Peruvian university to which the objects will go, signed an agreement of collaboration. The document formalizes a research partnership and creates the framework for the center that will house the objects and be jointly governed by the two universities. But most of all, it marks a pivotal step required for more than 5,000 pieces that Peru says were wrongfully kept, to finally return.

Since Yale and Peruvian officials signed a Memorandum of Understanding outlining the return of the objects last November, both sides have been eager to underscore the goodwill between the two parties. The document, they say, allows Peru and Yale to move beyond the mistrust that has often characterized their interactions over the century-long struggle — it has eliminated any underlying disagreement.

For the most part, the two sides agree. Peru will repatriate thousands of pieces. Some will arrive in time for the centennial this July; the rest will be in Peru by December 2012. But there remain aspects about which Yale and Peru tell very different stories. For instance, how the pieces came to stay in New Haven for so long, and why, after nearly a decade of bickering, Yale simply offered to cede them to Peru.

This is the story, based on hundreds of pages of legal documents and articles, as well as letters and journal entries found in the archives of Bingham’s expeditions. It includes the accounts from more than 30 conversations beginning in December, in Peru and the United States, with those intimately involved in negotiations between the two countries, those who will be responsible for the artifacts upon their return and those who just want to see the pieces come home.

A TROUBLED HISTORY

In October 1912, questions of patrimony in Peru seemed clear. Just over a year before, while looking for Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca empire, Bingham had reached Machu Picchu, which, he wrote, “fairly took my breath away.” With the support of the National Geographic Society and Yale, along with significant contributions by alumni and his wife’s family, the founders of Tiffany & Co., he had returned to Machu Picchu in June, “with the object of exploring it as thoroughly as possible,” clearing the ruins and excavating.

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Bingham went though the proper legal channels, receiving permission to excavate and export through an October 1912 agreement between Yale and the Peruvian government. The contract made an exception to a law banning the exportation of artifacts. According to Supreme Resolution No. 1529, Bingham could bring the pieces to New Haven. But Article IV of the resolution noted, “The Peruvian Government reserves the right to exact from Yale University and the National Geographic Society of the United States of America the return of the unique specimens and duplicates.”

This caveat was deliberate and is the linchpin of the stance held by Peru today.

“As originally conceived it was a loan,” historian Chris Heaney ’03 said. His book, “Cradle of Gold,” based on research he did as a Fulbright Scholar in Peru, tells the story of Bingham’s Peruvian expeditions.

Bingham returned to Peru again in 1914 and again received permissions to excavate. But he primarily dug at sites besides Machu Picchu, and the agreement loaned Yale the findings for only 18 months.

In October 1920, Peru exercised its right to solicit the return of the objects taken by the 1912 expedition. Though he lamented having to give the pieces back, Bingham recognized the legitimacy of such a request (though he seemed to have confounded the 1912 and 1914 expeditions). In a letter to Gilbert Grosvenor, then-president of the National Geographic Society, in November the explorer wrote, “I suppose we shall have to raise some more money to ship the material back to Peru. I wish there were some other way out of it.”

Yale Treasurer George Day 1897 found one. Two days later, he wrote to the Peruvian consul and asked for an extension until Jan. 1, 1922. The Peruvian government granted Day’s request, but the objects were never returned.

This is the history supported by papers sitting in the archives of Yale University and the National Geographic Society. It is a history supported by members of the Bingham family. It was, at least for a time, a history supported by Hiram Bingham III himself.

But it is a history very different from the one Yale later told.

FROM COOPERATION TO COURT BATTLES

The University has stressed its efforts to reach out to Peru and the importance of the work done by Bingham and his co-investigators; it points to the sites they found, their research on the objects collected and the communications of their findings to the world.

Prior to November’s agreement, Yale officials emphasized its efforts to reach out to Peruvians had said they continued to thwart the University’s attempts to collaborate. That, Yale officals say, is what happened 10 years ago, shortly after Alejandro Toledo became president of Peru. Yale professor Richard Burger ’72 and Peabody Museum curator Lucy Salazar, the caretakers of the Machu Picchu artifacts, approached his administration about co-sponsoring an upcoming exhibit based on the Bingham collection. “In 2001, we didn’t think that it would be an issue,” Salazar recalled in January. It became one.

According to Burger and Salazar, Toledo and his wife, Eliane Karp-Toledo, initially seemed interested in the proposal. But at a meeting in August 2002, she made clear that the only collaboration she sought was repatriation of the entire collection.

It was the beginning of a painful decade for both parties with negotiations, on and off, starting in 2003 and spanning two Peruvian administrations. Before November, Peru and Yale had twice reached an agreement. In 2008, the University gave Peruvian officials an opportunity to see the collection. Twice, Yale says, Peru backed away from discussions, ending them in ultimatums and threats of legal action. In the last month of 2008, Peru actually filed a suit. According to the inventory completed by then-head of the Peruvian National Institute of Culture, Cecilia Bákula, 46,332 pieces were being held illegally. A 2008 fact sheet published by the University said that her actions “fuel[ed] a misunderstanding over the number of objects at issue and speculation that Yale and Peru had a major disagreement.”

Peru said it wanted them all back.

“And once it was in court,” Burger said, “Well, it is very hard to negotiate and go to court at the same time.”

FIGHTING TO BE HEARD

In the courts of Washington, D.C., and then in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut, the dispute between Yale and Peru waged on. The University moved repeatedly for dismissal — on issues of where the case should be tried and, after the case was finally moved to Connecticut, whether the statue of limitations had been exceeded. (In other words, Yale claimed, Peru had waited too long to file suit.)

Peru argued that the case should be heard because the 1912 agreement was made pursuant to Peruvian law, under which the statute of limitations would not apply.

Daniel Schnapp, a litigator at the New York office of Fox Rothchild LLP and creator of the firm’s “Art Law blog,” explained that it is hard to predict which side would have prevailed should the matter have gone through the courts. In cases involving ownership of cultural property and artwork, extrapolating from other cases is difficult.

“The facts involved will always be different,” he said, adding that courts tend to resolve such disputes on a case-by-case basis.

But what was clear, long before the hearings in federal court, was that if the case proceeded, it would do so slowly. The court had to rule on the statue of limitations first. Even if it ruled in favor of Peru, Eduardo Ferrero, Peru’s lawyer, estimated it would take more than two years for any piece to return. The objects would still be in New Haven in July 2011, the 100th anniversary of Bingham’s arrival to Machu Picchu. They would not return under the administration of President Alan García, which has actively pursued the repatriation of misappropriated artifacts and ends on July 28.

And 100 years from now, Peru could still have been waiting.

MOUNTING PRESSURES

“We were dealing with a timetable,” Liliana Cino de Silva, Peru’s undersecretary for cultural foreign policy, explained. It was a timetable made explicit by the whiteboard in her office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where “24 Julio 1911” had been written in big letters and circled.

This date has loomed large during her tenure as undersecretary; she is García’s point-person for winning back objects smuggled or illegally taken from Peru. Cino was part of the delegation that travelled to the United States in 2008 to negotiate with Yale officials. Last April, she attended the Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage, which brought together countries such as Egypt, Nigeria and Greece that are contending with missing artifacts. At the end of the conference, each country made a wish list of pieces they wanted to recover. The Machu Picchu artifacts topped Cino’s list.

She also faced increasing public pressure to retrieve the objects, including a popular movement to indict the University on criminal charges in Peruvian court. According to Cino, in response to public sentiment García escalated a social and political campaign in late September that had begun the spring before. He issued an ultimatum on September 28, calling July 7, 2011, a “dividing line” between achieving an understanding and ensuring antagonism (July 7 is the anniversary of the day Machu Picchu was named on of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and the day many Bingham centennial celebrations will take place.)

Echoing William Howard Taft 1878, who, in 1912, had written to then-Peruvian President Antonio Leguía on Bingham’s behalf and requested permission to export the artifacts, García wrote to President Barack Obama seeking his assistance in getting them back. On October 24, García announced that protests would occur in Lima and in Cusco; his office praised a group of nine Peruvians running the New York Marathon with shirts emblazoned, “Yale, return Machu Picchu artifacts to Peru.” Thousands of people attended the November 5 protest in Lima; 4,000 attended the one in Cusco.

The Peruvians chanting “Devuelvenos el patrimonio” joined a larger chorus calling on Yale to return the objects. Then-Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd released a statement supporting the Peruvian position after travelling to South America in June. The president of Ecuador also voiced his support, adding that he would bring the issue to the Union of South American Nations.

Blame came from within Yale, too. In March, Heaney sent a copy of “Cradle of Gold,” which ultimately calls on the University to return the objects, to Levin, Burger and University spokesman Thomas Conroy. A group of 23 Yale alumni living in Peru sent a letter to Levin on Sept. 21 criticizing the position Yale expressed in court.

“A clear implication of Yale’s actions is that it gives a low priority to future relationships with Peru,” it said.

Publicly, Yale remained resolute. Neither Heaney nor the alumni received a direct response. The University had stated repeatedly that the issue could only be solved by negotiation, a process by which Peru had been twice disappointed. University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson wrote in an Oct. 27 e-mail that Peru’s warnings to bring criminal charges demonstrated fear over the outcome of the lawsuit.

A notice released by the University two days earlier warned that the government’s actions stood in the way of a resolution.

“This dispute cannot be resolved by threats,” it said.

And then in early November, shortly after the protest, Levin called Peruvian Foreign Minister José Antonio García Belaúnde. A Yale delegation led by Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, director of Yale’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and former President of Mexico, would head to Lima. Two weeks later, Yale would cede the entire 1912 and 1916 Machu Picchu collections.

From the outside, the University had, all of a sudden, changed its mind. Yale officials offered little explanation — they said they were just glad the two sides were finally talking again.

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