February 6, 2006

Yale’s Inca artefacts

Posted at 1:59 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Peru is threatening to sue Yale University for the return of various Inca artefacts. This article looks at this as part of a wider problem facing many universities & museums.

The Sunday Times

The Sunday Times – World
February 05, 2006
Wrath of the Incas descends on Yale
Matthew Campbell

A BATTLE between America’s Yale University and Peru over treasures from Machu Picchu, the famous city of the Incas, has highlighted a worrying issue for museum curators: how many prized treasures in their collections are plundered goods that should be restored to their rightful owners?

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art seemed to set a glowing example last week when it announced it would return to Italy a 2,500-year-old Greek vase looted from a tomb north of Rome in 1971 and sold to the museum a year later.

“We have been congratulated on this virtuous act,” said Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the museum. He said it had acted after being confronted with “irrefutable evidence” of looting.

It might be an unwelcome precedent for other institutions, not least the British Museum, whose battle with Greece to retain marble statues removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin has poisoned relations between the two countries for decades.

The quarrel between Peru and Yale’s Peabody Museum is similar, even if Hiram Bingham — the swashbuckling explorer, aviator and Yale professor who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911 — won a “special dispensation” from the Peruvian government to take Inca artefacts out of the country.

For decades, the treasures sat in boxes at Yale as Peru kept calling for their return. Three years ago, however, the Peabody staged an Inca exhibition that included many artefacts Bingham had brought home.

The Peruvians were furious, all the more so considering that President Alejandro Toledo, the first indigenous Peruvian to hold the office, has saluted the country’s Inca heritage and chose to have part of his inauguration ceremony at Machu Picchu, a remote and spectacular hilltop site in the Andes.

Peru threatened to sue Yale and make public its campaign unless the mainly ceramic artefacts were returned immediately, but the university insisted it had a proper title to several hundred items and had already returned others.

The Peruvians have picked the right moment to step up the pressure. Debate has been raging recently over the dubious collecting ethics of some American museums. Besides its pursuit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Italian government has been pressing for the recovery of ancient treasure from the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Marion True, the museum’s former antiquities curator, has been indicted by the Italian government on charges of trafficking in looted objects, along with Robert Hecht, an American dealer who sold the vase known as the Euphronios krater to the Metropolitan for £750,000 in 1972.

Old-fashioned colonial plunder seems a relatively innocent pursuit in contrast to the commercial world of the modern looter. Elgin was Britain’s ambassador to Greece when he acquired the marble statues from the Parthenon and sold them to the British Museum.

His supporters have always maintained that the “Elgin marbles” were much better looked after in Britain, a claim echoed by Dorothy King, archeologist and author of a book about the marbles, who said: “Most of the Parthenon sculpture in Athens isn’t on display and hasn’t been cared for.”

Many of the museum’s Egyptian antiquities were also acquired through plunder in the colonial epoch, among them the famous Rosetta stone, which the Egyptian government insists should be returned.

Not only that. Australia’s aborigines want back several etchings on bark that are held in the museum and Nigeria is seeking the return of the Benin bronzes, decorative plaques that once adorned the pillars of a palace. Scotland wants a priceless collection of 12th-century chess pieces fashioned from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth.

More than two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, 10,000 artefacts plundered from the national museum in Baghdad are still missing and archeological sites across Mesopotamia, the “cradle of human civilisation”, are being plundered daily. Many of these artefacts will no doubt end up being acquired by western museums.

In the Peruvian dispute, Yale points to a written agreement Bingham secured from the government allowing him to take out of the country for study the contents of some 170 tombs he excavated at Machu Picchu. Peru, however, clings to a subordinate clause under which the government of the day “reserves the right” to ask for the return of the objects.

Bingham should perhaps have followed the example of John Stephens, the 19th-century American diplomat explorer who is said to have bought a Mayan ruin from a farmer in Honduras for £30. Surely a bargain, even for 1841.

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