Light & Verity

Peru v. Yale

Richard Barnes

Richard Barnes

Peru is suing the university to repatriate ceramic pots and other items in the Peabody Museum. Yale's Machu Picchu collections include a few hundred museum-quality artifacts and thousands of fragments of pottery and bones. View full image

Early in December, the government of Peru opened a new chapter in a long-simmering dispute when it filed suit against Yale for the return of artifacts excavated nearly a century ago in Machu Picchu. The material, which includes pottery, jewelry, and bones, has been housed at the Peabody Museum of Natural History since archaeologist Hiram Bingham ’98 excavated parts of the mountaintop fortress in 1912.

Delicate negotiations aimed at repatriating the highest-quality materials had led to a 2007 "memorandum of understanding" between Peru and the university, but the deal fell apart last year and recent discussions have not resulted in a new agreement. So Peru, which had threatened legal action periodically for several years, took the matter to court.

The central claim of the 31-page complaint, which was filed on December 5 in United States District Court in the District of Columbia, is this: "These artifacts belong to Peru and its people and are central to the history and heritage of the Peruvian nation. Yale is wrongfully, improperly, and fraudulently detaining this property and has refused its return."

On December 9, the university issued a statement saying it was "disappointed" that Peru had "rejected Yale's offers to negotiate a collaborative agreement and instead decided to sue the university to recover archaeological material legally excavated at Machu Picchu."

No one disputes that Bingham conducted his excavations with the complete consent of Peruvian authorities. At issue is whether the governmental decrees that gave Bingham permission to work at Machu Picchu in 1912 and 1914–16, and to bring artifacts back to Yale for further study, constituted an agreement that the material be returned to Peru quickly—or at all. The last decree clearly included this mandate, and the artifacts collected during the last expedition were sent back in the 1920s.

But Peru maintains that Yale had agreed to give back everything. Its complaint accuses the university of breach of contract, fraud, and various civil conspiracies, among other charges, and demands the return of all the Machu Picchu artifacts excavated and exported by Bingham and currently held at Yale. The suit also asks for compensatory and punitive damages.

In crafting the 2007 memorandum, Yale had agreed that Peru would have legal title to the Machu Picchu items then under discussion. But the university believes that Peru is wrong about its interpretation of the laws applicable in Bingham's time. In its December 9 statement, Yale declared that "the claims asserted by Peru are barred by the statute of limitations and would have been without merit even if they had been filed within the legal time period. Yale will defend against it vigorously."

Peru says it hasn't ruled out a negotiated resolution. Foreign Minister José Antonio Garcia Belaunde told the state news agency, "If there is any offer, if we receive any invitation to negotiate and avoid court proceedings and reach an out-of-court settlement, we will do it." 

The comment period has expired.