Yale and Peru, An Uneasy Relationship? (UPDATE)

There has been an increase in attention paid to the tentative agreement, not yet concluded, between Yale University and Peru over artifacts from Machu Picchu. The former first lady of Peru, Eliane Karp-Toledo had an Op-ed in the New York Times on Saturday which was a scathing criticism of Yale University.

Yale University Staff reporter Paul Needham has also done some excellent reporting on this controversy, a recent article from Feb. is here, and an earlier one in Jan. is here.

I commented on the tentative Memorandum of Understanding back in September, and on the claims for repatriation back in June.

As I understand it, the initial agreement seemed to be an outstanding agreement for all concerned. Peru would receive title to the objects, many of the research pieces would remain in Connecticut under a 99-year lease, there would be an international traveling exhibitions, and finally Yale would help build a museum and research center in Cuzco. Such an institution would seem to be badly needed, as there are indications the current museum near the Aguas Calientes train station is not fit for purpose:

The doors were open to the air, which was moist from the nearby river, and the sole official was a caretaker who sold tickets and then exited the building. On display in the attractive (if unguarded) museum are the finds that Peruvian archaeologists have made at Machu Picchu in the years since Bingham’s excavations.

Despite what would seem to be a very good agreement for both sides, Karp-Toledo is very critical of Yale University, and indeed Hiram Bingham III who discovered the objects. She argues the objects were only to be taken from Peru for 12 months, and that legal title to all the objects must be returned to Peru. She claims “Yale continues to deny Peru the right to its cultural patrimony, something Peru has demanded since 1920.”

Yale University wants to keep many of the pieces which aren’t fit for museum display and study them, under a new 99-year lease. That doesn’t seem to me to be unreasonable, given Peru’s slight legal claims to the objects. It would seem that any legal claim Peru could bring for these objects has long since passed the statute of limitations. Peru has no tenable legal claim to the objects, however they do have a very powerful, even emotional ethical claim for the return of these objects. However, it seems to me that the ethical claims for return which have characterized the recent restitutions to Italy and Greece are absent in this case.

Unless I am missing something, Yale has absolutely no legal obligation to return the objects. I find it a bit puzzling that some in Peru are so critical of the potential agreement. The answer may be directly tied to notions of colonialism, past injustices, and even the current indigenous political movements there. However, the goal should be to advance the study of Peruvian heritage, to continue to publicize the site itself and encourage responsible tourism there. A frank discussion of the tangible benefits that both Yale and Peru will potentially receive is needed, however in these discussions it is often difficult to move beyond notions of identity and heritage, which often trump the more practical realities of what may be at stake.

(hat tip: Donn Zaretsky)
(photo credit)


It seems others have shared my initial reaction to Karp-Toledo’s piece. Lee Rosenbaum wonders how some of the more extreme comments made it into the piece.

Paul Needham continues his fine work on this story in the Yale Daily News and gives reaction from individuals at yale. Richard Burger, an archaeology professor at Yale called the Op-Ed “sour grapes”. It seems Helaine Klasky, Yale University spokeswoman is preparing a response. That should be interesting.

One wonders perhaps how pure Karp-Toledo’s motives may be. There is no question sites in Peru have been looted, but I don’t think Macchu Picchu is one. Is she using Hiram Bingham III as a political symbol, which generates public interest? I see a corollary to what Alex Salmond has done in making ill-conceived calls for return of objects from the British Museum. I do not see what grounds Peruvians may have to question this accord, which seems to be an extremely generous offer from Yale. Perhaps they should learn from a fellow nation of origin, Italy, which seems to have embraced the idea that it needs these cultural institutions in Europe and North America. Peruvians may regret that it was an American archaeologist who took objects from Macchu Picchu, but as Burger said “Yale would do well in a trial.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Yale and Peru Reach a "New Model" Agreement (UPDATE)

Randy Kennedy reports in today’s NY Times that Yale University has agreed to return artifacts excavated by Hiram Bingham from Machu Picchu in 1912 and 1914. The parties called it a “new model of international cooperation providing for the collaborative stewardship of cultural and natural treasures.” I think that’s exactly right, and appears to be an exciting and beneficial compromise for all sides. See my earlier post on this dispute here.

Negotiations have been ongoing, but pressures in Peru and Peru’s extremely rigid cultural patrimony laws made it difficult to work out a compromise. Talks broke down in 2006, and it was rumored Peru was considering legal action, though I didn’t see any kind of tenable claim. It would have made headlines though.

What is the nature of the agreement? It looks to be a kind of lease which creates “an extensive collaborative relationship between Yale and Peru”. Peru will receive title to all the objects, but many will remain in Connecticut. There will be an international traveling exhibition, and proceeds will help build a much-needed new museum and research center in Cuzco. Yale will also provide funds to establish a scholarly exchange program. As Yale president Richard C. Levin said, “We aim to create a new model for resolving competing interests in cultural property,… This can best be achieved by building a collaborative relationship — one which involves scholars and researchers from Yale and Peru — that serves science and human understanding.” Compromise is often an easy policy solution to advocate, but with respect to cultural policy it’s often the best solution.


NPR’s Morning Edition has a good story this morning where you can hear the comments of some of the parties.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Repatriation and Macchu Picchu

There was an outstanding piece in yesterday’s New York Times magazine by Arthur Lubow on the fate of objects excavated by Hiram Bingham from Macchu Picchu. He found the ancient city in 1911 and excavated the site in 1912 and 1914. The objects he excavated are currently held by Yale University. There is also an excellent slide show of pictures taken during the original excavation. The piece does a great job of highlighting how difficult it can be to generate consensus in cultural policy.

At issue are the artifacts Bingham took back to Yale, which Peru argued were only to be on temporary loan. The excavated artifacts at New Haven are:

a bit of a letdown. Mostly, the pieces are bones, in varying stages of decomposition, or pots, many of them in fragments. Unsurpassed as stonemasons, engineers and architects, the Incas thought more prosaically when it came to ceramics. Leaving aside unfair comparisons to the jaw-dropping Machu Picchu site itself, the pottery of the Inca, even when intact, lacks the drama and artistry of the ceramics of earlier civilizations of Peru like the Moche and Nazca.

However, many Peruvians want the objects returned, in a dispute which echoes the claims made by the Greeks for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. However in this case I think Yale has a much stronger ethical claim.

Hilda Vidal makes the argument for the return of the collection:

“My opinion reflects the opinion of most Peruvians,” Hilda Vidal, a curator at the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru in Lima, told me. “In general, anything that is patrimony of the cultures of the world, whether in museums in Asia or Europe or the United States, came to be there during the times when our governments were weak and the laws were weak, or during the Roman conquest or our conquest by the Spanish. Now that the world is more civilized, these countries should reflect on this issue. It saddens us Peruvians to go to museums abroad and see a Paracas textile. I am hopeful that in the future all the cultural patrimony of the world will return to its country of origin.”

Part of that makes a good and sound argument to be sure, but you aren’t going to get far in a repatriation dispute by arguing the museums in Paris, New York, London, etc. should be emptied. Likewise, I have a difficult time lumping Bingham in with the Spanish conquerors who stripped temples and melted down gold to return to Spain. That doesn’t mean Bingham is a revered figure in Peru by any means. Rumors (which have been discredited) suspect Bingham of smuggling out gold during the excavation. Also, some accuse Bingham of not even discovering the ancient complex, which had always been known to local farmers.

Lubow correctly points out though that these antiquities and remnants of ancient cultures are used as objects of political power today. And they also have value for lots of other interest groups. As he said, “Historic relics have pragmatic value: politically, for purposes of national pride and partisan advantage; economically, for display to tourists, museumgoers, magazine readers and TV-program watchers; scientifically, as research material for scholars pursuing academic careers; and, most nakedly, as merchandise for dealers in antiquities.”

That’s exactly right, and all these interest groups make it difficult to forge cultural policy. The strict national patrimony laws of Peru even make it difficult for reasonable compromise with Yale. Yale has generously offered:

The university showed me two letters sent to Peruvian officials in which Yale offered to send back “the museum-quality (that is, whole) objects excavated by Bingham at Machu Picchu” for display in a “state-of-the-art museum exclusively dedicated to Machu Picchu” that would be opened in Cuzco in collaboration with Yale on the centennial anniversary of Bingham’s 1911 discovery of the site. To help raise money for the museum, Yale would resurrect its touring exhibition, which — including dioramas and ceramics — would end up permanently in Cuzco. This represents a significant concession over Yale’s past proposal to divide possession of the approximately 300 display-worthy objects. The research collection, however, would continue to reside in New Haven. “The museum-quality pieces are the ones that people will want to see,” Shailor, the deputy provost, told me. “I don’t think they will want to see the end of a little finger or five dog bones, but these are extraordinarily valuable from a research perspective.” When I spoke with him in early May, Levin said that Yale is prepared to concede Peruvian title to the entire collection, but only after the ultimate physical allocation of the objects has been negotiated. In other words, Peru’s pride will be assuaged if Yale’s research needs can be met. Whether Peru will consent to those terms — indeed, whether the GarcÃa government is at liberty to do so, legally or politically — is uncertain;

The offer strikes me as a fair compromise which would be a win for both sides, especially considering the current state of the museum near the Aguas Calientes train station:

I found evidence of none of those amenities. The doors were open to the air, which was moist from the nearby river, and the sole official was a caretaker who sold tickets and then exited the building. On display in the attractive (if unguarded) museum are the finds that Peruvian archaeologists have made at Machu Picchu in the years since Bingham’s excavations.

And that gets to the heart of repatriation disputes. Like it or not Yale has a great deal of funds at its disposal and is capable of performing good scientific study, while in Peru, the artifacts could be at risk of theft and are not climate controlled. It seems Yale’s offer to fund a museum in Peru would be an excellent opportunity for Peruvians. Yet it seems many of the strident cultural nationalists have a hard time with even this compromise.

Hat tip to Donn Zaretsky at the art law blog for pointing out the article.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

412 Antiquities Repatriated

On Wednesday, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials returned 412 pre-Columbian antiquities to Peru. US Officials said it was the largest repatriation since the 1970s. The objects were returned during a repatriation ceremony at Florida International University in Miami. This is the Consul General of Peru, Jorge E. Ramon Morey. The best reporting is from the Miami Herald, with a slideshow and video, here. The Washington Post has a store here, Reuters has a blurb here and the AP summary can be found here.

They were being hawked by Ugo Bagnato, an Italian citizen, from a 1985 GMC cutaway van. Each antiquity was being sold for as much as $2,000 a piece. He smuggled the objects into the country in 2004 using “fake documents.” If I had to guess, I’d say he faked the customs documents. I had heard nothing about this case previously, but it seems Bagnato plead guilty and served 17 months in federal prison. He is now awaiting deportation.

The objects included:

  • dolls
  • tapestries
  • gold jewelry
  • burial shrouds
  • clay vessels
  • ancient fabrics
  • a child’s tunic

The arrest is a welcome sign I think, but of course the archaeological context surrounding the objects has been destroyed. As Morey said, coastal areas in Peru are looted to such an extent that “from an airplane, it looks like the area has been bombed.” The objects were returned pursuant to the 1997 bilateral agreement between the two nations. This was the way the US chose to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

This arrest of Bagnato and the repatriation, though welcome, indicate that the current regulation of the international antiquities trade is simply not working. One would expect that a guy selling a 3,000 year-old pot from a van should be apprehended. The objects weren’t noticed by Customs officials, because most shipments cannot be satisfactorily examined. Also, the middle-men and actual looters are unlikely to be punished.

Will the high-profile announcement this week serve to discourage the illicit trade? I have my doubts. If such this guy can openly sell objects from his van, I wonder how many illicit objects are sold in the more prestigious auction houses and galleries? We cannot be sure of course, because they do not routinely give provenance for their wares, and until they do, Peru and other source nations will likely continue to lose their archaeological heritage.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com