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90 years later, Peru battles Yale over Incan artifacts

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Yale, in its Dec. 8 letter, notes that it sent back some of the artifacts in 1922 (Peru concedes, but says these particular items were "worthless") and stresses that a long, costly lawsuit would be a mistake.

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Instead, Barbara Shailor, Yale's deputy provost for the arts suggests a compromise: "We have proposed to collaborate with Peru in overseeing the return to Peru of a substantial number of the artifacts," writes Ms. Shailor. But just as Yale is willing to "...recognize the importance to the Peruvian people of ... the return of this patrimony," so, she would like Peru to "give honorable recognition to Yale for its stewardship of the collection for nearly a century, and in the scientific and scholarly contributions thereby made possible."

In 2003, Yale's Peabody Museum mounted a major exhibition of the artifacts that traveled the US, introducing the wonders of Machu Picchu to more than a million people - just as Bingham's books and articles about "The Lost City of the Incas" did close to a century ago.

Bingham had multiple theories about Machu Picchu: that it was a training ground for Inca priestesses; the last Inca stronghold abandoned as the Spanish invaded; or the city of origin of the Inca empire, which dominated South America from Colombia to Chile for about a century.

Experts now say Bingham got it wrong on all counts, and that Machu Picchu was a summer sanctuary of the Inca Emperor Pachacutec.

Yale points out that its efforts have helped make Machu Picchu South America's best-known archeological site, attracting half a million tourists a year.

The fight over the artifacts is compounded by the fact that each side claims the crates Bingham sent out contained something different. Peru says Yale has in its possession close to 5,000 pieces. And, while even Lumbreras has admitted the site had been ransacked many times over the centuries by the time Bingham got there - it is common to hear Peruvians talk about stolen "treasures."

"Who knows where other - better - pieces are?" says Mariana Mould de Pease, a historian of Peruvian heritage. "I want to know what Yale did between 1911 and 2003 when they mounted the exhibition? Where were all the pieces?"

Shailor says all this is "misleading."

"Yale has approximately 250 pieces of exhibitable quality," she writes. "Yale has no mummies, no gold objects, and only a small number of silver pieces."

Roger Atwood, author of "Stealing History," a book on antiquities looting in Peru, says it is clear Yale is "taking a cooperative attitude" and suggests Peru rely on "ethical persuasion" rather than the courts.

"The artifacts are ... the treasures of Peru's most famous pre-Colombian city," agrees Chris Heaney, a Yale graduate writing a book about the controversy. "On the other hand, Yale has taken care of these pieces for over 90 years.... They are not the 'bad guys' here. They are a well-meaning scientific organization, not looters."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.