Antiquities belong in place of origin

August 2, 2007 -- Story from Miami Herald

Ninety-five years have been a long enough time for Yale University to hold onto cultural artifacts taken from Machu Picchu, Peru. The university now should return the treasures and end a dispute that it is sure to lose, if not in a court of law, then certainly in the court of public opinion.

The university acquired the artifacts after one of its professors discovered the majestic Incan city in 1911. Since then Machu Picchu has become a renowned archaeological site and a tourism magnet for Peru. The collection contains thousands of ancient ceramics, jewelry, pottery shards and human bones.

Artifacts on loan
Peru and Yale officials have argued for several years over who is entitled to the artifacts. Yet there is no question that the Inca items belong to Peru, and that they were loaned to the university for scientific study. Key documents confirm that intention:

• First, the 1912 agreement that allowed professor Hiram Bingham to export the artifacts to Yale explicitly provided for their return. It states, ``The Peruvian government reserves for itself the right to extract from Yale University . . . the return of the unique specimens and the duplicates.''

Second, a 1916 letter by Mr. Bingham to the National Geographic Society, which sponsored his first excavations, affirms the loan conditions. The artifacts, he writes, ``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.''

Yale says that an 1852 Peruvian law gave the university ownership of the artifacts at the time of excavation. That's a stretch. Nor is it persuasive from an ethical perspective. If Yale insists on keeping the artifacts, it would be reneging on Mr. Bingham's promise.

The dispute comes at a time when collectors such as New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles' Getty Museum have been returning antiquities to their homelands. In other cases, nations such as Greece and Egypt still are demanding the repatriation of priceless artworks. Many of the treasures involved were originally looted or taken as spoils. Morally, the countries of origin have a right to recover their cultural patrimony, a principle that applies to Peru's Inca treasures.

Breathtaking site
Yale studies of the Machu Picchu artifacts have broadened scientific and historical knowledge of the Incan Empire and made the university a leader in the field. Coverage by the National Geographic Society and others of the breathtaking site have stimulated interest and tourism.

Clearly, both Yale and Peru have benefited from the artifacts' stay in New Haven. The time has now come for the artifacts to be studied, preserved and displayed in Peru.