Yale to return Inca artifacts for real this time. Maybe.

Inca gold pendant retrieved by Hiram Bingham at Machu PicchuYale University and Peru signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday stipulating that Yale will return the artifacts removed from Machu Picchu by Yale professor Hiram Bingham III’s expedition between 1911 and 1915. All of the artifacts will go back by December 31, 2012, with the items in good enough condition for museum display to be returned in time for the centennial of Bingham’s finds in July 2011. The objects are to be housed at the University of San Antonio Abad in Cuzco and will be available to Yale scholars to study in collaboration with local experts.

The memorandum states that the center will be built with financial support from the Peruvian government. [University President Richard] Levin said Yale will work with the university in Cusco to establish a museum and research center dedicated to the artifacts, adding that details of the deal to found the center are still under negotiation.

Still, Levin said that the artifacts may return to Yale for short exhibitions of up to two years, as allowed under Peruvian law.

“We will be able to ensure that the objects will be well taken care of and will be accessible to scholars,” Levin said, adding that these are “conditions that were very important to us.”

The memorandum has yet to be formalized, however, and it’s not the first time Yale and Peru have gotten this far only to have it go up in smoke. The last time was in 2007, when after months of negotiations an agreement was reached that acknowledged Peru’s title to the artifacts but granted Yale rights to study and display some of the pieces in New Haven for up to 99 years. That deal fell through in 2008, followed by Peru filing suit against the university in a Connecticut federal court. Peru turned up the heat even further recently, taking to the streets in mass protests, threatening to press criminal charges and formally requesting that the White House intervene in the dispute.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even came down on Peru’s side this June, an interesting illustration of the changing attitude towards repatriation issues given that Hiram Bingham III was himself a Senator from Connecticut from 1924 to 1933.

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu in 1911Bingham is often described as having rediscovered Machu Picchu in his 1911 expedition, although really the locals had never lost it and even foreigners like missionaries and adventurers/looters knew about it decades before Bingham made his way there. He returned in 1912 and spent the next 3 years collecting thousands of artifacts like jewelry, ceramics and even human remains, all of which he brought back to Yale.

Peru claims the artifacts number over 40,000, but Yale says they only have 5,500, 330 of them museum quality. Peru says they were only loaned; Yale says all the loaned objects were returned in the 20s and the artifacts they still have they own legally. This was the crux of the dispute. If the memorandum of understanding gets the official stamp of approval, Peru’s ownership will be uncontested. We’ll see if new issues crop up over the number of artifacts.

4 thoughts on “Yale to return Inca artifacts for real this time. Maybe.

    1. The terms under which Bingham removed the artifacts are disputed. Peru claims they were all loaned; Yale claims only a fraction were loans and the rest were given free and clear.

      He did need permission, yes. Even back then taking thousands of ancient artifacts out of the country required governmental approval.

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