Clashes between museums, nations over artifacts more frequent
Last week, Peru said it would sue Yale University, which exhibits many of its Machu Picchu artifacts at its Peabody Museum of Natural History, to get them back. The increasingly fractious dispute between the Ivy League university and Peru, involving at least 250 artifacts, is one among many in a recent upsurge of ownership controversies between U.S. museums and foreign governments.
As governments seek the return of antiquities or archaeological artifacts that they say are rightfully theirs, U.S. museums are tightening their standards for buying or exhibiting such works and studying ways of resolving ownership disputes outside the courtroom.
"It's clear that this is a shifting landscape," said Mary Sue Sweeney Price, the director of the Newark Museum and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors.
In the case of the Machu Picchu artifacts, the landscape shifted for the worse last week. After three years of negotiations, Peru rejected Yale's offer to split the objects in its collection, which were taken to New Haven by the swashbuckling explorer who found the ruins in 1911.
The university had offered to return a "substantial number" of objects to Peru, while retaining the remainder for display and research, according to a proposal put forth by Barbara Shailor, Yale's deputy arts provost.
But Peruvian Ambassador Eduardo Ferrero said in a statement that Yale professor Hiram Bingham, the explorer who found Machu Picchu, took relics from the site "with the legal authorization and express understanding of all the parties that the artifacts were on a temporary loan and would be returned to Peru."
Yet despite the passage of nine decades, the ambassador said, "still Yale will not return Peru's rightful property," adding that his country plans to file suit against Yale in an unspecified U.S. court.
Objects on display at the university's Peabody Museum include delicate silver and bronze pieces, smooth stoneware cooking implements, and several 30-inch-high vases for storing the corn beer that was central to Incan life.
The museum's exhibit, "Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas," recently returned to Yale after spending nearly three years touring the country, including stops at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
After his initial discovery, Bingham, who went on to fly planes in World War I and serve as a U.S. senator, returned to Machu Picchu on two collecting expeditions in 1912 and 1914-15. On those trips, he cleared and excavated the overgrown site, which archaeologists now believe was a summer retreat for the Sapa Inca, the ruler of the Incas, and his court.
Yale says that materials from the last expedition were returned to Peru years ago because that trip was covered by a Peruvian decree stipulating that objects Bingham collected on that expedition had to be sent back to Peru.
But his 1912 journey was governed by a far looser agreement, and it is the objects from that expedition that Peru is now seeking to recover.
Yale says that under Peruvian law at the time, the university became the owner of the artifacts "at the time of their excavation and ever since," according to deputy provost Shailor.
Following Peru's rejection of Shailor's proposal, the university said in a statement that "despite Yale's belief that it has title to all of the Bingham materials, it has been willing to negotiate the return of many objects to Peru," in an effort to avoid a long, costly legal fight.
And Yale officials emphasize that they have cared for the artifacts for more than 90 years, preserving them, making them available for scholars, and displaying them to the public.
"The value is not in the individual items but in the collection as a whole and the story it tells about the place," said Janet Sweeting, the Peabody's education director. "And if we hadn't kept it together, it wouldn't be together today because others would have come along after Bingham and taken these objects. They'd be in living rooms instead of a museum."
But winning the return of the Machu Picchu artifacts has been a priority for Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, the first indigenous Peruvian to lead the country, who emphasized his heritage by holding part of his inauguration ceremony at Machu Picchu in 2001.
Apart from nationalist sentiment, having the objects close by would also enhance the appeal of Peru's most popular tourist destination. More than 400,000 foreigners visited the site in 2005, up 68 percent in two years.
Although Yale and Peru may be at an impasse, museum directors are hopeful that a recent settlement of another dispute, involving New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Italian government, could serve as a model for resolving ownership disputes.
The agreement, announced two weeks ago, calls for the museum to return 21 pieces of ancient objects to Italy in return for long-term loans of works of equal importance.
The Italian government says the objects, including a large vase and a set of silver pieces, were looted from archaeological sites, part of an illicit haul that has resulted in criminal charges against a former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
"I think the Italians were very generous," said Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University's law school who specializes in cultural property issues. "They had a high probability of recovering those artifacts, but litigation takes a long time. It costs a lot of money. This is a quick and easy resolution."
Italian prosecutors have indicated that several other American museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Toledo Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art, own works that they believe were also looted and exported illegally.
But Gerstenblith does not expect a mass exodus of ancient artwork from American collections. Rarely is the evidence as compelling as in the Italian case involving the Getty and the Metropolitan.
Still, museums are tightening their acquisition policies. Last week, the art museum directors' group issued guidelines for accepting loans of antiquities from private collectors or other museums, following up on a tougher set of standards for buying ancient art that the group instituted in 2004.
Museums are also devoting more staff and money to researching the objects in their collections with uncertain provenance, or ownership history, said Price, the head of the museum directors' group. The result will be that museums and art historians will know more about the objects.
"In the long term, that will contribute to scholarship," she said.
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