Yale says Peru’s lawsuit over artifacts should be dismissed

Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Cuzco, Peru, as seen at twilight. Photo by Martin St.-Amant. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Cuzco, Peru, as seen at twilight. Photo by Martin St.-Amant. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) – Yale University says a lawsuit by Peru seeking the return of thousands of Inca artifacts removed from the famed Machu Picchu citadel nearly a century ago should be dismissed because a statue of limitations expired.

Peru rejects the argument, saying Yale never owned the artifacts and that its claim is not subject to a statute of limitations under Peruvian law. Peru also says Yale did not assert ownership of the artifacts until late 2008.

“The artifacts are of immense cultural and historical importance,” Peru’s attorneys wrote in recently filed court papers. “Yale’s mere retention of the artifacts establishes nothing.”

The South American nation filed the lawsuit in December 2008 demanding the Ivy League university return artifacts taken by famed scholar Hiram Bingham III between 1911 and 1915. The claim accuses Yale of fraudulently holding the relics for decades.

The Machu Picchu ruins, perched in the clouds at 8,000 feet above sea level on an Andean mountaintop, are Peru’s main tourist attraction. The complex of stone buildings was built in the 1400s by the Inca empire that ruled Peru before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century.

Yale filed court papers Friday arguing the lawsuit should be dismissed because of a three-year statue of limitations under Connecticut law. Yale says it returned dozens of boxes of artifacts in 1921 and that Peru knew it would retain some artifacts.

“In the twenty-first century, long after everyone with any personal memory of the expeditions had died, Peru claimed that Yale had not returned enough of the artifacts and demanded that it now return any artifacts that Bingham had exported from Peru,” Yale’s attorneys wrote.

Yale describes the artifacts as “primarily fragments of ceramic, metal and bone” and says it recreated some objects from fragments.

Peru says the artifacts are composed of centuries-old Incan materials, including bronze, gold and other metal objects, mummies, skulls, bones and other human remains, pottery, utensils, ceramics and objects of art. Peru says the most important artifacts were never returned.

Peru has been pressing its claim to the relics for years, saying it never relinquished ownership of the artifacts.

In 2007, the two sides agreed to give Peru legal title to the pieces, which were to travel in a joint exhibit and then return to a museum and research center in the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco. Yale would have funded the traveling exhibit and partially funded the museum.

But Peru backed out of the deal because of a dispute over how many artifacts were to be returned.

Yale has said it was disappointed that Peru decided not to honor the 2007 agreement. The university said then that under the deal, it had promised to return all “museum quality objects” along with a “significant portion of the research materials.”

“Other research materials – bits and pieces of pots, bones, and other small fragments that are similar or identical to countless objects already in Peru – would remain at Yale for a defined period, and would be one focus of Yale-sponsored collaborative research and scholarly exchanges,” Yale said at the time.

The lawsuit seeks damages on several counts including breach of contract, unjust enrichment and fraud. It says the monetary damages will be proven at trial and that each count “far exceeds $75,000.”

The claim cites century-old government documents granting Bingham permission to excavate and remove the artifacts, but retaining ownership and reserving the right to request their return.

Peru says the documents show Yale was aware that Peru owned the pieces and knowingly violated U.N. cultural property agreements by refusing to return them.

Bingham is commonly credited with rediscovering Machu Picchu centuries after the Incas abandoned the site during the Spanish conquest. But in recent years, versions suggesting that other foreign and local explorers beat him to the site have gained currency among Peruvian historians.

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