Peru Questions Yale on Inventory of Artifacts
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Some Incan artifacts are once again at the center of an international debate. Nearly 100 years ago, an American archaeologist shipped thousands of antiquities from Machu Picchu in Peru to Yale University in Connecticut.
Two years ago, the government of Peru threatens to sue to get them back. Last year, the two sides hammered out a tentative agreement for Yale to return the material. Now, the fate of those artifacts is once again in question.
Diane Orson reports from member station WNPR.
DIANE ORSON: Custody battles over antiquities usually involve stolen goods — objects looted from the ground, smuggled out of a country, sold on the black market, and bought unwittingly or wittingly by collectors in Museums.
But the dispute over the artifacts from Machu Picchu is different, says Peru's former first lady, Eliane Karp Toledo.
Ms. ELIANE KARP TOLEDO (Former First Lady, Peru): There is a contract in the case of Peru, which the pieces belong to the nation of Peru and have to come back unconditionally just the way they left.
ORSON: The Incan artifacts - ceramic vessels, silver statues, jewelry and human bones - were excavated with the permission of the Peruvian government.
Yale adjunct history professor Hiram Bingham III made three trips to Machu Picchu between 1911 and 1915. The second and third expeditions were co-funded by Yale and the National Geographic Society.
Bingham wrote letters about his travels to the Geographic's then-president, Gilbert Grosvenor. In an interview with NPR two years ago, National Geographic's current executive vice president, Terry Garcia, said he found a trove of correspondence in the Society's archives.
Mr. TERRY GARCIA (Executive Vice President for Missions Programs, National Geographic Society): Literally, dozens of letters indicating that Hiram Bingham, Gilbert Grosvenor and Yale, all understood that they were being permitted to excavate this site subject to an acknowledgement that the objects, number one, belong to the Peruvian government, but also, that if those objects were taken out of the country, they were loans and that they were to be returned.
ORSON: And some did go back, but thousands stayed Yale's Peabody Museum. In 2006, Peru's first indigenous president, Alejandro Toledo threatened a lawsuit against Yale. But last year, Yale worked out a proposed settlement with his successor. That was never signed.
When she learned details of the tentative agreement, Toledo's wife, Eliane Karp wrote a stinging opinion piece in The New York Times criticizing the pact. Days later, a Peruvian delegation traveled to Connecticut to review Yale's inventory of the artifacts.
Yale deputy provost for the arts, Barbara Shailor.
Ms. BARBARA SHAILOR (Deputy Provost for the Arts, Yale University): This is an inventory that has been recently put together that's much more detailed and much more scientific than any inventory in the past. And they spent very, very long days working with our faculty and our staff going through and checking each item.
ORSON: But a report prepared by the Peruvian team and released on Sunday by its government says there are 40,000 objects being held by Yale, 10 times the number listed in Yale's inventory. The university says there's no real discrepancy. The difference in numbers is the result of different counting methods. And Shailor says most museum quality objects from Machu Picchu will be returned to Peru.
Luis Repetto Malaga(ph), director of the Museum of Art and Popular Culture at Peru's Pontificia Catholic University, says that can't happen soon enough.
Mr. LUIS REPETTO MALAGA (Director, Museum of Art and Popular Culture, Pontificia Catholic University, Peru): (Speaking in foreign language).
ORSON: Malaga says it's incredible that Yale University won't recognize and immediately act on the issue of patrimony that clearly belongs to all Peruvians and should be returned.
Now, the Peruvian government seems to be backing away from the tentative agreement. Yesterday, it released a statement announcing a counterproposal incorporating the report of its inventory team and suggestions made by academics in the country. It hasn't announced details of the counterproposal, and Yale has not responded to requests for comment.
But Yale official Barbara Shailor said earlier that an agreement is in the best interest of everyone interested in Machu Picchu.
Ms. SHAILOR: They are international sites that are recognized as having international importance. From Yale's perspective, this is really what we want to contribute to, to that international collaboration and understanding of these materials.
ORISON: On its Web site Yale says, it acknowledges Peru's title to the objects, but it also states that under Peru's civil code of 1852, finders of artifacts were allowed to keep them.
Patty Gerstenblith, director of DePaul University's Program in Cultural Heritage Law, says that argument would not hold up in court.
Professor PATTY GERSTENBLITH (Director of Cultural Heritage Law Program, DePaul University): If there was a specific agreement that applies to the discoveries in Machu Picchu, then that specific agreement would override the general law. And it seems to me, from a legal point of view, pretty clear, that in fact, these artifacts belong to Peru.
ORISON: The controversy is a perfect storm, says Duke University Cultural Anthropology professor, Orin Starn.
Professor ORIN STARN (Cultural Anthropology, Duke University): Well, I think it's important to understand that Machu Picchu is an iconic place for people in Peru. It's like Peru's Grand Canyon and Lincoln Memorial rolled up into one. So the symbolism of bones and artifacts from Machu Picchu being in the United States is really quite powerful.
ORISON: With yesterday's announcement, the Peruvian government seems to be acknowledging the power of that symbolism.
For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.
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