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NY Times Roils Cultural Property Experts With Two Problematic Op-Eds—Part I

Machu Picchu
Whenever I’ve written Op-Ed pieces for the NY Times, the editors have always been annoyingly meticulous about double-checking to make sure that all my facts were, in fact, factual. Such caution is not only justified but essential when running strongly opinionated essays by outside contributors who have axes to grind.
So how did not one but two pieces on hot-button cultural-property issues manage to appear on Saturday’s Op-Ed page with so many holes in them?
First, there was Eliane Karp-Toledo’s piece, blasting last September’s tentative but not yet finalized accord between Peru and Yale University, regarding return to Peru of archaeological materials excavated by Yale scholar Hiram Bingham III from Machu Picchu in the early 1900s.
This author certainly had an ax to grind: The wife of Peru’s first indigenous president, Alejandro Toledo, she had participated in preliminary negotiations with Yale. But the tentative deal was struck after her husband was succeeded as president by Alan García, who Karp-Toledo charged is “frankly hostile to indigenous matters.”
According to her piece, “Peru’s sovereign right to the entire collection is not acknowledged, and it is clear that Yale would keep a significant proportion of the materials.”
That’s not how the Yale Bulletin described the accord last September:
Most of the museum-quality, whole artifacts currently at Yale will be installed in a new museum and research center in Cuzco, Peru, which will be built by the Peruvian government to meet security and technical specifications provided by Yale….Yale will also transfer to the museum and research center a portion of archaeological materials from among the several thousand pottery and stone fragments, bones and other objects not of museum quality. These will include those materials, such as certain bones, which have already been well studied and for which Yale has no future research plans.
Fragments such as ceramic shards that Yale may have future plans to study will remain at Yale. University researchers will have access to study material transferred to Peru, and Peruvian researchers will have access to material to remain at Yale.
The agreement, once finalized, will acknowledge Peru’s title to all of the archaeological artifacts excavated at Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham now at the University.

The Yale Daily News yesterday detailed the university’s strong reaction to the Times Op-Ed piece. Paul Needham reports:
Sunday, University officials struck back at Karp-Toledo in interviews, questioning the validity of her claims and the nature of her motives….Richard Burger, an archaeology professor at Yale who co-curated an exhibit of the artifacts at the Peabody Museum of Natural History in 2003, said Karp-Toledo’s piece in the Times was an example of “sour grapes.”
“It was filled with distortions, inaccuracies and outright lies,” he said on Sunday. “It is a disgrace.”
Burger said he is disappointed that the Times would publish Karp-Toledo’s article. University spokeswoman Helaine Klasky is currently drafting a response to The Times, he said.

We’ll keep an eye out for that.
On the same Saturday Op-Ed page, there was also this piece, “Plunder Goes on Tour,” about the controversy over the current show at London’s Royal Academy of French and Russian paintings, 1870 and 1925, from Russian museums. One prominent American museum curator, with no involvement in that show, said this to me about the opinion piece by Allan Gerson, identified in the Times as a “former professor of international law and senior State and Justice Department official”:
It’s one of the most misguided and muddled things I’ve read in a long time.
More on this later.

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