Machu Picchu: Sticky Wicket?

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Over the months that I was working on Time‘s story this week about the antiquities wars, one thing that struck me was that last September’s “memo of understanding” between Yale University and Peru to return the Machu Picchu artifacts, which was supposed to be finalized within 60 days, never was. Now we’re getting a glimpse of how messy this could still get. Last Saturday the New York Times ran a stinging Op-Ed piece by Eliane Karp de Toledo, archaeologist and former first lady of Peru, who was a prime mover in Peru’s campaign to retrieve the artifacts.

One of her complaints is that Peru would not be granted clear title to to the entire collection, because the tentative agreement provides for Yale to keep a portion of “non-museum quality” artifacts for research purposes for 99 years. The best reporting on this story has been coming from Paul Needham at the Yale Daily News , which last month obtained from Karp de Toledo a copy of the confidential memo between Yale and Peru. A piece he wrote last week is particularly good. One crucial passage:

The question some Peruvians familiar with the negotiations have been asking, then, is what qualifies as a museum-quality piece and what does not. The University gave Yale archaeology professor Richard burger, who co-curated an exhibit of the artifacts at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the task of classifying the objects.

But the larger context here is all about nationalist electoral politics, the crucial context for understanding many antiquities disputes, however legitimate the source nation’s claims may be. The negotiations to return the Machu Picchu artifacts began under the presidency of Karp de Toledo’s husband Alejandro Toledo, who made issues of Peru’s indigenous peoples a priority of his presidency. But the memo of understanding wasn’t concluded until Peru’s current president, Alan Garcia, came to office in 2006. In her Times Op-Ed, Karp de Toledo takes a swing at Garcia, saying he’s “frankly hostile to indigenous matters.” Peru’s constitution bars its presidents from serving two consecutive terms, but they can run again after their successor concludes his or her term. So what we’re seeing here isn’t just a dispute over Incan artifacts. It’s a warm up for Toledo’s next presidential run, no?

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