MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Among the highlights in the collection of Yale University's Peabody Museum are ancient Incan artifacts from one of the most famous historical sites in the world: Machu Picchu. They were excavated in the mountains of Peru in 1912 and taken to Yale for study. Now the Peruvian government plans to sue to get them back.
From member station WNPR, Diane Orson reports.
DIANE ORSON reporting:
Alejandro Toledo is Peru's first indigenous president. He was born in the Andes Highlands. His wife Eliane Karp Toledo says, for her husband and all Peruvians, there's a spiritual connection to Machu Picchu.
Ms. ELIANE KARP TOLEDO (First Lady of Peru): He was inaugurated in Machu Picchu and asked for the protection of the high mountains, which are considered protective gods. So it's a very, very sentimental issue. It's very much related to the indigenous life of Peru, to its essence.
ORSON: Yet until early last century, Machu Picchu and many Incan historical sites were lost. Forgotten not only to the outside world, but to much of Peru. Then in 1911 an adjunct history professor at Yale named Hiram Bingham III and a small group of guides stumbled upon what he believed was the lost city of the Incas.
Mr. DAVID BINGHAM (Grandson of Hiram Bingham III): I'm going to slide the doors open.
ORSON: David Bingham, Hiram Bingham's grandson, leads the way into the family camp in Salem, Connecticut, that his grandfather designed and built.
Mr. BINGHAM: You'll see on the walls pictures of Machu Picchu that he took.
ORSON: There are also pictures of the older Bingham, dressed in a fedora and jungle fatigues, evoking images of another famous fictional explorer.
Mr. BINGHAM: People think that the Indiana Jones character that Harrison Ford plays was very much taken from some of the old pictures in the National Geographic.
ORSON: But unlike Indiana Jones, Hiram Bingham was able to see his lost ark on display. During a second trip to Peru in 1912, Bingham excavated hundreds of objects from Machu Picchu, silver statues, jewelry, musical instruments and human bones that are currently part of a multimedia exhibition at Yale's Peabody Museum in New Haven.
Unidentified Announcer: High in the Andean Mountains of Peru, veiled in clouds and mist, an ancient site of the Incan empire, Machu Picchu.
ORSON: Hiram Bingham made a third trip between 1914 and 1915 and brought back more material. The last two trips were co-funded by Yale and the National Geographic Society. They were the first archeological expeditions the society ever sponsored. During his travels, Bingham wrote dozens of letters to the Geographic's then-President Gilbert Grosvenor.
Terry Garcia, the Society's current executive vice president, reads from a letter dated November 28, 1916.
Mr. TERRY GARCIA (Executive Vice President, National Geographic Society): Hiram Bingham is writing to Grosvenor and he says, referring to the objects, “Now 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.”
Then there's a reply from Gilbert Grosvenor in November of 1916, November 29th, saying, “Dear Hi, replying to yours of November 28th, I feel that we ought to abide by the letter of our agreement with the Peruvian government and return all the material.
ORSON: So it would seem that the explorer and one of his sponsors agreed that objects taken from Peru should be returned. Yale won't allow any university employees to discuss the issue, but in a written statement says, “Yale long ago returned to Peru materials excavated by Bingham during his 1914-15 expedition. The materials in dispute were excavated during the earlier 1912 expedition.”
The university claims title to these objects under Peru's Civil Code of 1852. Peter Marzio coauthored a study on the acquisition of archeological materials, with guidelines for museums. He's also director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He says if artifacts were collected according to the laws of the day, countries shouldn't be able to change the rules later.
Mr. PETER MARZIO (Director, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston): Art museums now are trying simply to protect the collections that currently exist in museums because the objects were, in almost every case, collected legally or within accepted business practices at the time that they were collected.
ORSON: But Peruvians aren't buying this argument and haven't for a while. David Bingham remembers taking his children there in the 1970s. He was invited by three newspaper reporters from Cusco, for what he thought would be a pleasant interview.
Mr. BINGHAM: All they wanted to know about was how our family had stolen all of the Peruvian artifacts and had become wealthy from what they had taken.
ORSON: Bingham denies ever profiting from his grandfather's expeditions, but the Peruvians say that Yale has, a charge the university denies. Three years ago Yale launched a major touring exhibition featuring the artifacts. That prompted the Peruvian government to start negotiations to get them back.
Yale offered to divide them up and help Peru install its share in a museum near the site. Peruvian officials would not agree to any joint projects until Yale acknowledged that all of the objects belong to the Peruvian people. Yale refused.
In a letter to the editor of the Hartford Currant, Yale's deputy provost for the arts, Barbara A. Shailor wrote that, “the government of Peru has not offered any means for establishing the long-term stable arrangements that are necessary to assure that a collection of objects can remain in New Haven.”
Earlier this month, the Peruvian government broke off talks and announced plans to sue. Not long after, the National Geographic Society added its voice to the debate, backing Peru. Again, National Geographic's Terry Garcia.
Mr. GARCIA: We did a thorough search of our archives. We came to the conclusion that any objects excavated during these expeditions were the property of Peru. Furthermore, the laws and decrees that had been issued in connection with the expeditions also made it very clear that any objects that were permitted by the government to be removed from Peru were on loan. And then you add to that the fact that the parties, you know, Bingham, Yale, National Geographic, all acknowledged in this lengthy correspondence that was going back and forth that yes, indeed they understood that Peru had title and they understood that they had to return them.
ORSON: To have such specific documentation is rare in antiquities cases. Objects in many museums were excavated hundreds of years ago without any paperwork at all. The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently returned objects to Italy, including the famous Euphronious Crater, after Italian researchers were able to prove that it had been stolen.
Peter Marzio says the recent rise in similar claims has left museums wondering what they can and can't collect.
Mr. MARZIO: And I think it will probably retard a little bit, the fervor for collecting, at least by people doing it legally, and it'll increase the black market. But secondly, I think it will result in museums building much larger legal staffs in order to protect themselves.
ORSON: But Peruvian First Lady Elian Carpe Toledo argues that documentation shows the artifacts should be returned. Besides, she says, most Peruvians have never seen them.
Ms. TOLEDO: Peru has never had an opportunity to show them, to show them to their own people. And the ownership and the property of the pieces belong to the Peruvian people.
ORSON: Peruvian officials say the dispute is between their government and Yale University and does not involve the U.S. government. They have not announced when Peru will file suit.
For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.
BLOCK: You can check out a photo gallery of some of the disputed artifacts at our Web site, NPR.org.