Yale and Peru inched closer to court this summer, as a nearly century-old controversy over Inca artifacts grew even more complex in a few short months.
Just under a year ago, on Sept. 14, 2007, the University and the government of Peru claimed to have found consensus regarding the rightful ownership of artifacts excavated from Machu Picchu in the early 20th century by Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III. But whatever progress was made last fall seemed squandered when Peru threatened litigation in April, and the negotiations did not fare much better over the summer, as Yale hired a lawyer in Peru, an important meeting between the parties ended up being largely trivial and National Geographic made a brief — yet fracturing — appearance in Lima.
The Peruvian Consulate in New York was host to negotiations on Aug. 25 that could have marked a return to good relations between Yale and Peru. University General Counsel Dorothy Robinson confirmed to the News that she and other Yale officials attended the meeting, but did not comment further; Yale spokesman Tom Conroy called the talks “informative.” Conroy added in the e-mail, however, that the absence of Hernan Garrido-Lecca, Peru’s chief negotiator with Yale, limited the extent to which the parties could advance the negotiations at that session.
Richard Burger, the Yale archaeology professor most closely associated with the artifacts, was also in attendance at the meeting. Burger may have put it best when he noted in an interview last night that, “there is a lot of distance between Yale and Peru right now.”
That distance is mainly the result of the crumbling of negotiations after Peru essentially decided in April to abandon the terms of the Sept. 14 memorandum of understanding. The memorandum stipulated that Yale would acknowledge Peru’s title to all the artifacts and return some of the objects — including almost all of the finest, museum-quality pieces — over the course of the next few years while keeping others for up to 99 years. Peru, in April, said it wanted all the artifacts back at once.
But the distance between the parties may have grown even further as Terry Garcia, executive vice president of the National Geographic Society, traveled to Peru in June and announced his own interpretation of the relevant Peruvian law (some of which dates back to 1852). Garcia, representing an organization that was a sponsor of Bingham’s 1912 expedition, came down firmly on the side of Peru, saying that Yale has no right to keep the objects.
In a sign that Yale is preparing for an eventual court battle, the University has retained Enrique Ghersi, a Lima-based lawyer, to provide it with legal counsel.
Such counsel, of course, would have been unnecessary had August’s meeting gone well. But while Cecilia Bakula, director of Peru’s National Institute of Culture, did attend that session, a high-ranking Peruvian government official told the News in August that Garrido-Lecca’s unavailability was indeed a roadblock to progress at the summit. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, cited a medical-industry strike as the reason for the absence of Garrido-Lecca, who is also Peru’s health minister.
The government official added that, even still, the August meeting was more of a formality than anything else, as Peru’s government has begun to plan — if only in a preliminary manner — for litigation with Yale.
“We haven’t said ‘we’ll see you in court’ yet,” the Peruvian official added, “but we’re close.”
Although the terms of the memorandum — originally kept confidential — were revealed by the News in February, they have now been made available to the public on a section of the Web site of Yale’s Office of Public Affairs. In addition, an inventory of the objects, a history of the collection and a “Myths and Facts” sheet are all available for download. In other words, the University is gearing up for a fight.
“Yale does not know what course the Government of Peru will take,” Conroy, the University spokesman, said. “But if a lawsuit is filed, Yale will defend the action.”
Contact Paul Needham at firstname.lastname@example.org