Peruvian Artifacts at Yale University Will Be Returned

In 1912 Hiram Bingham, an American explorer, took thousands of artifacts from the Incan city of Machu Picchu during his first of several expeditions he led to Peru, and brought them to Yale University, his Alma Mater. After 100 years of being at Yale, the artifacts will be returned to their home nation. Professor Briggs, director of Yale’s Peabody Museum, expressed excitement about the artifacts’ return. There has been a long dispute over ownership of the artifacts as Peru alleges that the artifacts were on loan to Yale University for eighteen months and never returned back.

In 2007, Peru and Yale reached an agreement granting the Peruvian government legal title to all the artifacts and returning all “museum-quality” artifacts to Peru. Peru backed out of this agreement after realizing it was not receiving the entire collection and filed a civil lawsuit against Yale University in December 2008 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking immediate return of all the artifacts. In early November 2010, Peruvian government officials started to increase pressure on Yale University by protesting through the streets of Lima in an effort to ensure that the artifacts would be returned before Machu Picchu’s centenary celebrations. On November 2, 2010, Peru’s President Alan Garcia wrote a letter to President Obama formally requesting his help in recovering Peru’s cultural relics. Shortly thereafter, on November 19, 2010, Peru and Yale University reached an agreement that will return all of the Peruvian artifacts to its home nation.

The return of the artifacts will be a legacy in Mr. Garcia’s presidency. His speech praised Yale University for agreeing to return all the artifacts and for keeping them safe. The agreement states that the artifacts will be returned to Cusco’s University of San Antonio Abad. This joint centre for the study of Machu Picchu and Inca culture will be open to academics from Peruvian and American universities. The full collection is set to be returned by 2012.

Professor Briggs does not think that this agreement will serve as precedent and that each case will have to be decided on their facts. Do you think this agreement will provide guidance as to how similar cases will reach a decision? Will this lead to an increase in nations requesting their goods from museums? How will Greece who is trying to reclaim Elgin Marbles from the British Museum use the Yale-Peruvian agreement to strengthen its case?


  1. We never fully dealt with this kind of legal issue in Property class, but I suspect that Professor Briggs is right: the return of the Machu Picchu artifacts will not directly impact other similar cases. Under the law, I’m sure specific facts (like how artifacts were removed, whether there was compensation, the length of museum possession, etc.) are dispositive to the ultimate question of who is rightful owner. Besides, in terms of case law, because this case ended in a settlement, legally, it can’t have any precedential weight.

    The settlement in and of itself, however, is very interesting. It seems to me that the Machu Picchu artifacts were returned largely because Peru was able to generate a great amount of political pressure. Perhaps if Greece manages to do the same, it will find itself once again in possession of the Elgin Marbles. And really, I don’t see politics in this respect as a bad thing. After all, Western explorers marched in and out of countries carrying objects that they classified as artifacts without abiding by any sense of law. Perhaps the absence of full-fledged legal authority – a case proceeding through trial without political influence – is only fitting for the return of such objects.

  2. The dispute between Brittan and Greece over the Elgin Marbles does not appear to be similar enough to be affected by the decision between Yale and Peru.
    While the artifacts housed at Yale were taken from Peru by an American explorer, the Elgin marbles were taken by Lord Elgin who was an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The debate over ownership in regard to the Elgin marbles is fierce because Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time they were taken, so unlike the debate between the US and Peru in which Peru claims the artifacts were on loan, the British claim ownership of the marbles as they were taken at a time when they were in power in Greece. Mr. Pandermalis, the director of the new Acropolis Museum, states that the problem is cultural and ethical but not legal. The former cultural minister of Greece, George Voulgarakis, does not believe the fact that the British were in power at the time of the taking serves as a justification. He explained, “It’s like saying the Nazis were justified in plundering priceless works of art during the Second World War.”
    Regardless of whether it’s a legal or ethical problem the debate between the Greeks and the British has been ongoing and has been of great significance to the people of Greece. For example, a state of the art museum, the Acropolis Museum, was built in 2009 to house, among other artifacts, the Elgin Marbles. This museum was created to rebut the argument of the British that they could not return the marbles because the Greeks did not have a suitable place to keep them. However, since the construction of this museum, the rest of the marble sculptures from the Parthenon, of which the Elgin Marbles is a portion remain on display with little hope of being reunited with the missing Elgin Marbles portion. Greece’s culture minister, Antonis Samaras, described the Parthenon sculptures housed in the Greek museum as broken up, [and explained that they] are like a family portrait with “loved ones missing.”
    Despite public support from Greeks for many decades, including the movement “Greece for Greeks”, Brittan has been unwilling to return the marbles. “I understand what museums fear, they think everything will have to go back if the marbles do. But the Acropolis is special” explained Greece’s former cultural minster.

  3. My hope from an ethical/moral/academic/international perspective is that the agreement between Peru and Yale University does not serve as a precedent. I by no means believe that if it can proven in a court of law that the current possessor of an historical artifact came about it via an illegal manner, like seemingly would have been the case in the Yale situation, then said possessor should be legally entitled to possession. Rather, generally speaking, I am of the opinion that many of these controversial antiquities (in terms of ownership) belong in the (hopefully) autonomous museums and universities in which they are currently housed. These organizations transcend national identities, and serve the entire international community by providing safe, and accessible homes for said materials. I am worried that if the Yale situation were to start a trend, countries’ would seek these materials, which they may no longer have a strong historical claim on, merely to increase tourism revenues, or to further other “lesser” goals, and, in turn, potentially threaten the well-being, and accessibility, of these internationally significant artifacts.

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