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Yale and Peru: what are the issues?

"Yale will acknowledge Peru’s title to all the excavated objects" from Machu Picchu (Rachel Boyd, "Univ. to return artifacts to Peru", yaledailynews.com, September 17 2007). The 380 or so objects were excavated by Hiram Bingham III between 1911 and 1915. There seems to be evidence that it was intended that the objects should remain in Yale for a period of about 18 months in order to undergo study and research (“They do not belong to us, but to the Peruvian government, who allowed us to take them out of the country on the condition that they be returned in 18 months", Bingham in a letter dated November 28 1916).

The outcome is positive: a travelling exhibition, a new museum, academic exchanges, and further loans.

Is this the same as the recent returns of Greek and Italian antiquities from other North American collections?

Not really.

In the Yale case the objects had been excavated. The issue was about where the objects should reside. (In many ways the case is not unlike the head of Nefertiti from Amarna that is now in Berlin.)

But in the case of the objects returned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, there is no suggestion that the objects were excavated as part of an archaeological expedition. These objects had surfaced on the antiquities market after the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Many had passed through Switzerland and some had been recorded on Polaroids. All seem to have been ripped from their archaeological contexts by looters.

There is similarity between the two types of repatriation. It is now clear that museum officials are willing to talk to foreign governments. But the issue is not just about North American museums that have been under intense spotlights recently. The beams also need to turn to Europe and Japan where equally celebrated cases of looted antiquities are held.

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