Last Friday, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Peru quietly filed suit against Yale University seeking the return of a number of objects from in and around Machu Picchu. The objects were excavated and removed to the United States by Hiram Bingam in the early part of the 20th Century. This is the culmination of a long process between Peru and Yale, in which the parties had seemingly agreed to a beneficial compromise for both. The suit will of course be interesting to unfold, as it would seem to push the boundaries for a court resolution of a dispute over objects which were removed from Peru in the waning years of the imperial age.
The suit was expected, as Peru had made the tentative decision last month to bring suit. This after what had appeared to be a happy resolution to the dispute, with Yale offering a very substantial settlement including an international traveling exhibition and the construction of a new museum and research center in Peru in exchange for a new 99-year lease on the objects.
That deal fell through, and now Peru has decided to seek redress in Federal Court.
I’ve had a chance to quickly read over the complaint and I see a number of interesting issues:
- The degree to which the 1970 UNESCO Convention may apply — as an international instrument and policy imperative.
- If there will be further development of the requirements neeeded to establish national ownership over an object. The complaint cites an 1893 Decree which prohibited removal of objects absent special permission from the government. A potential issue may be what kind of special permission –if any — Hiram Bingham had from Peruvian authorities at the time.
- Also, there will likely be an interesting back and forth over whether Peru’s suit is timely. The complaint argues that there has only recently been a demand and refusal of the objects, though there appears to be the possibility of a strong laches defense for Yale given the time which has passed since the objects left Peru. Yale may have a strong defense by arguing it has held the objects in a transparent way, and Peru has impinged Yale’s rights by waiting so long to bring a claim.
- Finally, there may be interesting conflicts of law issues which arise.
A win for Peru in court may set a precedent for other future claims from the imperial age, and may extend further the window for nations of origin to seek the repatriation and restitution of objects. This would be a powerful legal option going forward, in which the pendulum has seemingly already swung back to favor nations of origin already.
However even if the court dispute is unsuccessful, Peru may still have a good outcome if they can sway public opinion at home or abroad. I have more questions than answers at this point. I wonder to what extent Peru may be seeking a public shaming of Yale in the hopes of punishing them or forcing them to apologize for taking these objects away. It should be noted that the objects themselves are primarily interesting for their intellectual value. They are not prized for their inherent beauty or value. Their primary purpose would seem to be to assist in research and other pursuits. One wonders if Peru would be able to perform this research function as well as Yale University? Or, if those intellectual pursuits might have been best advanced if Peru had been able to reach an agreement with Yale which would have resulted in the construction of a research center in Peru. Isn’t the ‘star’ of the ancient city the well-preserved ruins themselves?
The initial complaint is here ($).
Hat Tip: Peter Tompa.