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.
Toledo -- because of his Indian heritage but also on behalf of all Peruvians -- has made it a priority to recover the objects. After several years of settlement talks collapsed, Peruvian Ambassador Eduardo Ferrero charged last week that Yale has "not acted in accordance with the principles of good faith," and he threatened a lawsuit. The university, meanwhile, asserted that Peru had "broken off negotiations . . . instead of working out the framework for a stable and long-term resolution."
This story is thick with Yalies on both sides. Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society, is a Yale graduate. The biggest blow to Yale's case came last week when the society -- which co-sponsored with Yale two of Bingham's expeditions -- concluded the artifacts belong to Peru and called for their return.
Gregory Craig, the Williams & Connolly partner who is representing Peru, graduated from Yale Law School -- and his grandfather, Paul Bestor, Yale Class of 1910, was quartermaster on one of Bingham's expeditions.
Bingham, an obscure 35-year-old adjunct professor until that July morning in 1911, was at the beginning of a great public career that would make Indiana Jones jealous: explorer, World War I aviator, author, governor of Connecticut, U.S. senator. In the Senate, the Connecticut Republican was censured for secretly putting a lobbyist on his payroll. But his reputation survived. He lived at 1818 R St. NW and died in 1956.
He may have cut a Hollywood-perfect image as an explorer, with exploits seemingly ripped from a script, but he was no tomb raider. The irony at the bottom of this ruckus is that 95 years ago, Bingham, Yale, National Geographic and Peru appeared to recognize the inherently unequal and morally fraught relationship between bankrolled explorers and bankrupt peoples.
They tried to do something about it: Laws were passed, words were inked, in hopes that 95 years later there wouldn't be a dispute over who owned what. That didn't work out so well.
Even though this case comes amid a rising tide of seemingly similar disputes and settlements -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art last month agreed to return looted works to Italy in exchange for loaned art, while the British Museum holds on to the Elgin Marbles -- its documentary record makes it unique.
Seated in a wing chair in his spacious office on Embassy Row, Ferrero allows a little passion to slip between the lines of his diplo-speak. Referring to Bingham, he wags a forefinger in the air: "I say 'rediscoverer' not 'discoverer' because Machu Picchu was already known by people" in the area, he says. Dating to the 15th century, and abandoned sometime in the 16th, the city was an elaborate vacation retreat for Incan nobility. Its discovery enhanced modern understanding of a sophisticated civilization that existed long before Spanish invaders overran the territory.
"Yale and the National Geographic gave an important contribution to put this information for the knowledge of Peru and the world," Ferrero acknowledges. But now, "there is a legal obligation and a moral obligation of Yale University to give back all these objects."
The ambassador leafs through pages of records -- photocopies of Peruvian decrees passed in 1912 and 1914 to regulate Bingham's expeditions, letters on Yale stationery from Bingham to Gilbert H. Grosvenor, then-president of National Geographic.
He reads aloud from a Bingham letter dated Nov. 28, 1916: "Now they" -- the artifacts from the third expedition -- "do not belong to us, but to the Peruvian government, who allowed us to take them out of the country on condition that they be returned in eighteen months."
It is unclear why Yale is clinging to the collection. Officials would not answer questions about the case. In statements, the university contends that under an 1852 law it is not obligated to return material collected on the first two expeditions. But Peru cites a 1912 decree in which it "reserves its right to request" return of any artifacts Bingham might find, or had found.
On his third trip in 1914-1915, Bingham was allowed to send 74 boxes of artifacts to Yale, and he had to return all of them. The Peruvians say records exist showing return of only half the boxes, citing Bingham's correspondence. Yale says all the boxes were returned, without citing any documentation.
Bingham, in memoirs published three decades later, says, "The archaeological material is mostly in the Yale University Museum, except that which was excavated in [the third expedition], which was all returned to the Peruvian Government."
Two weeks ago, Yale proposed returning many of the artifacts and helping Peru display them in a new museum. But Yale insisted on retaining a large number to ensure "research and scholarship of these objects will continue to exist and flourish into perpetuity," according to a March 1 statement.
Peru insisted that Yale recognize Peruvian ownership of all the artifacts, but suggested that some could remain on loan at the Peabody.
Over at the offices of National Geographic, four blocks from the Peruvian Embassy, Bingham is a revered figure. His second journey to Machu Picchu was the first expedition ever co-sponsored by National Geographic -- since then there have been 8,000 -- and Bingham's graphic account took up an entire issue of National Geographic Magazine. Portraits of the explorer are hung around the building.
National Geographic officials watched with increasing alarm as the Geographic's reputation got lumped in some circles with Yale's as clinging to Peruvian property -- when in fact the Geographic possessed none of the artifacts.
So Geographic officials tried to help broker a settlement, and also undertook an assessment of who really owned the Bingham artifacts.
In his office filled with photographs and reports from expeditions around the world, Terry Garcia summarizes the result. Garcia is vice president for mission programs -- the guy who oversees today's Hiram Binghams.
"There's no question on the face of it that the law called for these objects to be returned if the Peruvians asked for them," Garcia says. "It was an easy conclusion to come to."