Peru Tries to Recover Gold From Yale's Ivory Tower

Peru may sue Yale for the return of Incan artifacts from Machu Picchu.
Peru may sue Yale for the return of Incan artifacts from Machu Picchu. (Yale Peabody Museum Of Natural History)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006

That day dawned unpromising, cold and drizzly, in the jungle foothills of Peru 95 years ago. The guides wanted to sleep in, the colleagues wanted to chase butterflies. But the explorer insisted on pressing deeper into the land of the Inca.

Which way are the ruins? demanded Hiram Bingham, a tall, thin, handsome product of Yale in a battered gray fedora.

The guide pointed straight up the mountain.

They climbed more than 2,000 feet along narrow paths, dodging poisonous snakes, inching across slippery logs spanning a raging river.

They rounded a promontory -- and the stunned explorer beheld his future and humanity's past.

"It fairly took my breath away," he recalled later. "What could this place be?"

It was Machu Picchu, a lost city in the clouds, a terraced and cut-stone wonder that ranks somewhere with the Pyramids among examples of ancient technological prowess.

It is the pride of modern Peru, a major tourist attraction -- and subject of a bitter dispute that erupted this month between Yale and Peru over who owns hundreds of artifacts Bingham collected during three expeditions. Many of those objects -- bones, pottery, tools -- reside at the Yale Peabody Museum, which has them on display in a major exhibition called "Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas."

Peru wants the objects back; Yale wants to keep them.

This showdown over national patrimony, private property and academic inquiry comes as Alejandro Toledo, the first indigenous president of Peru, is scheduled Friday to meet with the Yale graduate who inhabits the White House.

Toledo's three-day visit to Washington -- he plans to meet with congressional leaders today -- is intended to deal with promoting democracy and trade. The Machu Picchu artifacts are not on the official agenda, but Toledo will likely raise the topic with President Bush, said Peruvian embassy sources. Toledo considers the dispute a matter between his government and Yale, not between Peru and the United States. The White House agrees.

"We understand the importance of this issue to Peru, and believe this is a private matter between Peru and Yale to resolve," said a White House official who was not authorized to discuss on the record in advance the presidents' meeting.

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