In 1911, Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu. “Discovered.” The professional adventurer was in Peru on commission from Yale University when he heard locals tell tale about a nearby dead city. Together, Bingham and a local child guide climbed through the countryside, the boy proudly showing off his homeland to the interesting visitor.
When they reached Machu Picchu, Bingham invariably saw dollar signs flashing behind his eyes. He more-or-less shoved the child aside while proclaiming, “I discover thee,” and then he and Yale proceeded to scavenge the ruins for anything not bolted down.
Oddly, this was done with the consent of the Peruvian government, but also with the clear understanding that the items would be returned to Peru at any time they wished.
Eventually, Peru decided they wanted their treasures back. But, as is the case in many deals done between two parties of greatly disparate wealth and resources, Yale simply ignored them. So, in 2008, Peru sued Yale for the repatriation of their antiquities. Yale basically responded with the air-tight defense of “finders, keepers.”
The two parties had many formal talks and, in time, reached an agreement. Starting in 2010, the artifacts were returned to Peru.
Yale cautioned that this was a unique case and should not set a precedent for returning stolen goods to their original owners. (Those are my words, not Yale’s, but I assure you the sentiment is basically the same.)
I have never been to Peru, but I have been to Greece, which was likewise plundered for its treasures by enterprising, professional explorers from wealthier nations. I remember visiting the museum on the Acropolis, excited to see the preserved antiquities of the area. Instead I saw, over and over again, artists’ representations and copies of items that had been usurped by the British Museum.
The majority of the Parthenon’s frieze sits 2000 miles away in the BM in England. There, the antiquities are called “Lord Elgin’s Marbles” or the “Elgin Marbles,” a name which reveres the 19th-century nobleman who had overseen the “acquisition” of the items.
In the Acropolis Museum, however, the marbles were not rescued from an undeveloped society by a heroic Englishman. No, they were stolen by “Elgin’s henchmen.”
As Greece mulls suing the British Museum as Peru did Yale, I come to the point of this post: Antiquities belong to their people, not corporations nor universities nor other countries who happened to be quick and crafty enough to sneak priceless items across their borders. Yes, in a larger sense the antiquities also belong to you and me and everyone else in the world, but this isn’t altruism. This is theft.
Just give Athens back its frieze already, BM. And the rest of you organizations proudly displaying obviously stolen goods, do the right thing and return them to their rightful homes.