As this week’s heated Peruvian presidential election enters a runoff, the government of Peru has not yet filed a lawsuit against Yale for the return of precious Machu Picchu artifacts excavated in the 1910s, casting doubt on the future of the dispute.
Nearly a century has passed since Yale historian Hiram Bingham III’s discovery of the artifacts that redefined universal understanding of the Incan culture, but archeological experts say the historical record is murky, citing contracts that seem to confirm Peru’s right to ask for Bingham’s findings to be returned on the one hand and Yale’s longstanding custodianship of the artifacts on the other hand. Whether or not Peru will follow through with its promise to sue Yale may hinge on the incoming government’s attitudes toward national identity, regional experts said, though there are still a number of complicated legal, ethical and historical questions that must still be answered by both parties.
“We have not been served with a lawsuit,” Yale head counsel Dorothy Robinson said on Tuesday. “We remain hopeful that we can achieve an amicable resolution with the Peruvian government.”
Current Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo — the country’s first indigenous leader, whose wife was one of the leading advocates of the showdown with Yale — did not run for re-election. Yet Peru has already hired a top counsel of former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 to represent their case, indicating their intention to sue in spite of the hefty legal fees and changing regime.
With Toledo leaving, the outcome of the runoff between Ollanta Humala, a rising nationalist leader, and either pro-business Lourdes Flores or left-wing ex-President Alan Garcia, will significantly impact Peruvian policy. Although the Peru-Yale conflict has not been a focus of recent candidate debates, Humala is widely expected to strengthen Peru’s conviction for the return of the artifacts, while the position of other candidates on the matter is uncertain.
“My expectation is that a totally different government is going to come in, one that will see that it’s in their interest to work with Yale in some sort of collaborative effort and that Yale and Peru … can join in some sort of educational initiative and work in creating some sort of museum together,” said Richard Burger, a curator of the Yale Peabody Museum and the researcher who, along with his wife, resurrected research on Bingham’s excavations. “It’s too early to tell what the situation is going to be like in Peru in a few years, but I’m very optimistic.”
On Tuesday, a top Peruvian official, who asked not to be named, denied that elections would have any bearing on the lawsuit. He said it is essentially a “state policy” to recover the artifacts from Yale, which will not change with the election of a new leader.
“We don’t have any specific dates, but it will be [filed] soon,” he said, citing the substantial time required to properly prepare a lawsuit.
Still, Burger said he is still skeptical that the suit will ever be filed in state court.
“Lawsuits are expensive, and my understanding of it is that Peru would have a very weak case,” he said, noting that there is a distinction between cases of looting and legal excavation. “The trouble is when you want to go back into an earlier time when there is an earlier set of values and practices.”
But critics of the Yale position cite the pair of contracts signed by the then-president of Peru and Bingham on behalf of the university in 1912 and 1916.
In the 1912 agreement obtained by the News, one term of the contract provides for Peru’s reserved right to have artifacts “that might be extracted and have been extracted” to be returned to Peru at the government’s request. The 1916 agreement stipulates, “Yale University and the National Geographic Society pledge to return, in the term of 18 months from today, the artifacts whose export has been authorized.”
A letter written by Bingham and obtained by the News, dated Nov. 28, 1916, indicated that even he believed Peru’s legal prerogative was to have all the excavations returned.
“They do not belong to us, but to the Peruvian government, who allowed us to take them out of the country on condition that they be returned in 18 months,” Bingham wrote.
Christopher Heaney ’03, who received a Fulbright Scholarship to write a book on the Yale-Peru conflict and has lived in Peru since August 2005, said there is a degree of historical judgment that must be used in evaluating the contracts and Peru’s alleged request several years after the excavations to return all artifacts.
“From the agreements at the time, it’s pretty clear that both Bingham and Peru, at least when these agreements were made, understood that the pieces did belong to Peru and that Peru could ask for them back,” he said. “Did Bingham misread the letter from Peru? Did he not see the word 1912?”
Barbara Shailor, Yale’s deputy provost for the arts, said that although she believes Yale has a right to the artifacts — some Yale officials have cited a potentially overlapping civil code or the statute of limitations — it is important to note the extent to which the artifacts have added to knowledge of Peru across the world.
“They’ve been brilliantly preserved — preservation and conservation is something that Yale has done a supremely fine job about — and certainly the scholarly investigation of the material has been really first-rate,” she said.
Yale President Richard Levin, who said he has met with Peruvian Ambassador Eduardo Ferrero, said Yale seeks a compromise with Peru that provides both Peruvians and Yale with “sufficient representation” of the Bingham collection to mount first-class exhibits in both places.
“Our position is that the law actually would support our claim to ownership, but in a way, that’s a technical issue,” Levin said. “We feel the best solution for the long-term stewardship of these object is to work out a cooperative arrangement.”
Hugh Thomson, a well-known British explorer of Machu Picchu, said Burger’s research at Yale has “made up for” the Peruvian case that not much work was done on the artifacts for years. But Thomson said the issue also has cultural and political significance.
“It’s very much a political issue, but not necessarily in a dishonorable way,” he said. “Peru is trying to redefine itself by its Incan past, and Machu Picchu is really the center of the Incan past in some ways. Naturally, it’s a hugely emotional subject.”
But Roger Atwood, author of a book on antiquity looting, said that while there may be compelling political and cultural demands for the return of the artifacts, Yale should also consider returning the artifacts for the somewhat “colonial” nature of their acquisition and the original legal contracts signed.
“I don’t see that the [Peru] case would work if it came to court, but I like to think it suggests ethically that Yale would have some responsibility for handing these pieces back,” he said.
Thomson said he hopes the current conflict will resolve itself with a long-awaited solution taking into account the interests of both sides.
“It’s quite a complex issue,” he said. “I would hope that there could be some sort of partnership between Yale and Peru, where artifacts could be displayed potentially at both places, as well as around the world.”