Former Peruvian first lady blasts Yale for refusing to turn over Machu Picchu artifacts

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[Eliane Karp-Toledo, the former first lady of Peru, is a visiting lecturer at Stanford.]

SURE, it seemed like a great idea when, last September, President Alan García of Peru reached a preliminary agreement with Yale about the disposition of more than 350 artifacts taken from Machu Picchu. Everyone hoped the settlement might be a break for cultural understanding in the cloudy skies of international cooperation. News reports suggested that Yale would return more than 350 museum-quality artifacts, plus several thousand fragments thought to be of interest mainly to researchers — all of which were taken from the mountaintop Inca archaeological complex nearly a century ago — and that legal title to all the artifacts, even those to be left at Yale for research, would be held by Peru.

But having finally obtained a copy of the agreement, I can see that Yale continues to deny Peru the right to its cultural patrimony, something Peru has demanded since 1920.

When, in 1912 and 1914-15, the explorer Hiram Bingham III excavated the treasures from Machu Picchu — ceramic vessels, silver statues, jewelry and human bones — and took them from Peru, it was supposed to be a loan for 12 months (a period that was later extended a half-year). The National Geographic Society, which co-sponsored Bingham’s explorations, has acknowledged that the artifacts were taken on loan and is committed to seeing them returned to Peru.

From 2001 to 2006, when my husband, Alejandro Toledo, was president of Peru, I participated in negotiations with Yale over the artifacts. Peru requested the return of everything Bingham had removed from Machu Picchu, and President Toledo, with the support of both the National Geographic Society and Senator Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut, discussed the request directly with the president of Yale, Richard C. Levin. Those talks broke down, however, when Yale refused to accept our first condition: recognition that Peru is the sole owner of the artifacts. The university also would not allow us to conduct an inventory of the pieces, under the pretext that the archaeologist we had selected was not qualified....

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