More than a year has passed since Yale and Peru signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the rightful ownership of ancient Inca artifacts housed at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.
For much of the time since last September’s memorandum, the parties were locked in a stalemate over the objects excavated nearly a century ago. But now, Peru has sent a higher-level official to the negotiations, and some on Yale’s side say there is new hope that a final agreement can be reached, although both Yale and the Peruvian government acknowledge that the parties may well end up in court.
Yale and Peruvian officials met in New York Sept. 27 for the second time in just over a month. Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde, the Peruvian foreign minister, was present at that session; Hernan Garrido-Lecca, the Peruvian health minister who has overseen the negotiations for over a year, was not.
If nothing else, the mere presence of a senior Peruvian government official was progress for the talks, as neither Garrido-Lecca nor Belaunde attended an Aug. 25 meeting between the parties.
But Richard Burger, the Yale archaeologist who has been most closely involved with the artifacts, noted in an interview that Belaunde’s attendance at the meeting was even more significant.
“The fact that the minister feels that it’s appropriate for him to intervene suggests that there is a desire to reach an understanding,” said Burger, who was a part of the August negotiations but was not present at the September session. “Because if [Peruvian officials] wanted to go to court, they could have just left things as they were.”
To have left things as they were would have been to declare a final agreement between the parties essentially out of reach. Yale and Peru were as far apart as ever after the summer, with Peru threatening litigation against Yale in April and almost no progress being made at the meeting in August. Officials from both Yale and Peru present at the September meeting declined to comment this week, but University spokesman Tom Conroy said in a statement that the meeting was “productive,” adding that, “Yale believes the two sides are close to a resolution that would meet the goals of both parties and serve the broad public interest in the collection’s conservation and access.”
Productive as Belaunde’s presence at the September meeting might have been, comments he made in Peru just three days after that meeting indicate he still considers litigation a viable option for Peru.
“It is evident that if we go on to trial, Yale will have to bring out what it’s got up its sleeves in order to maintain ownership,” Belaunde told the Peruvian state news agency Andina.
He added that dialogue with Yale is an alternative to a lawsuit, but the minister made a point of noting that the one constant over the nearly 100 years that Yale has held the artifacts is that Peru has not renounced its title to the objects.
For its part, Yale maintains there is “no need or justification for litigation on the part of the government of Peru,” as Conroy put it. He added that the University is prepared to defend itself if a suit is filed and that Yale still hopes to reach an agreement on a “collaborative relationship” with Peru.
The idea of a collaboration between Yale and Peru was central to the University’s portrayal of last September’s memorandum of understanding. The memorandum stipulated that Yale would acknowledge Peru’s title to all the artifacts and return most of the pieces — 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.
The pieces that were to be sent back at once would have been housed in a special museum near Machu Picchu that Yale and Peru would design and fund together. All this was intended to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the first expedition to Peru by Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III in 1911. But Burger said too much time has passed for a 2011 museum opening to be feasible.
“Regardless of how good the memorandum was, just by the passage of time, certain aspects of it aren’t feasible,” Burger said. “So the negotiations are definitely taking on a new form.”