White & Case Assists Republic of Peru on Return of Machu Picchu Artifacts | White & Case LLP International Law Firm, Global Law Practice
White & Case Assists Republic of Peru on Return of Machu Picchu Artifacts

White & Case Assists Republic of Peru on Return of Machu Picchu Artifacts

On 30 March, hundreds of Inca artifacts from Machu Picchu arrived in Peru after almost a century at Yale University in the United States, marking the latest step in the implementation of a landmark agreement between Yale and the Republic of Peru, advised by White & Case.

The artifacts arrived by jet and were escorted through the streets of Lima by an honor guard of 600 police. Peruvian president Alan Garcia, Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde and other officials welcomed the arrival of the artifacts to the Presidential Palace, where they were displayed temporarily pending transfer to Cuzco, near Machu Picchu. In the first week after the arrival of the artifacts, over 100,000 people saw the artifacts on Peruvian soil for the first time in many decades.

The story behind the case dates back almost six hundred years, when the Inca empire constructed the citadel of Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains. The Incas later abandoned the site, leaving behind myriad precious artifacts, as well as remains of the Incas and their culture. Centuries later, a joint expedition by the National Geographic Society and Yale University led to the scientific discovery of the site in 1911. A series of expeditions excavated thousands of Incan materials and exported the materials under special Peruvian decrees issued in 1912 and 1916, which required their return.

Yale returned certain materials, but kept others. Peru requested that Yale return the materials, but prior negotiations regarding their return broke down and Peru filed suit against Yale in US federal court. That is when Peru retained White & Case, led by partners Jonathan C. Hamilton, Carolyn B. Lamm (Washington, DC) and Owen C. Pell (New York), with associates Francisco Jijon (Washington, DC) and Marika Maris (New York).

The White & Case team worked closely with Estudio Echecopar in Lima, which advised on Peruvian law. The White & Case collaboration with Estudio Echecopar and other leading Peruvian lawyers has been successful for Peru. Mr. Hamilton worked at Echecopar for a stint 15 years ago and one of his associates is seconded to Echecopar this year. For its part, the managing partner of Echecopar is White & Case alumnus Ismael Noya, and a former international lawyer on the Latin arbitration team in Washington, DC is a senior associate at Echecopar.

White & Case argued Peru's case at a critical five-hour hearing on 17 September 2010 at federal district court in Connecticut. While Yale argued that Connecticut law applied because of where the artifacts were located now, Peru strongly contended that Peruvian law applied to the dispute and that there is no prescription to the claims for the return of precious cultural patrimony.

In the weeks that followed, Peruvian president, Alan Garcia, publicly demanded the return of the artifacts. The demand triggered demonstrations in the streets of Peru and support from the National Geographic Society, Yale alumni, scholars, US politicians and other governments from Egypt to Ecuador.

Yale dispatched to Lima former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, now a Yale professor. On 23 November, high-level negotiations resulted in an agreement for the return of the artifacts. The agreement is governed by Peruvian law.

According to the agreement, Yale returned 370 museum-quality pieces to Peru in time for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the scientific discovery of Machu Picchu in 2011. The remainder of the materials are set to be returned going forward, and the litigation has been stayed pending performance under the agreement.

According to Jonathan C. Hamilton, "The Machu Picchu-related materials are precious cultural patrimony, and the termination of the related litigation is subject to the terms of the agreement and Yale's return of the materials to Peru in the time period agreed."

Carolyn Lamm added, "It is gratifying to have been a part of a case where the legal and political systems worked together to achieve the right result."

In reporting on the agreement to return Inca treasures, The Economist wrote that the artifacts "will add a new attraction in a country where tourism is growing rapidly, with Machu Picchu as the main draw. The agreement may also send a message to less honorable collectors around the world, who continue to buy and deal in illegally exported artifacts that form part of Peru's rich … cultural heritage."

LatinLawyer named the resolution of the Machu Picchu dispute as a finalist for "Dispute of the Year." This year, White & Case and Estudio Echecopar achieved success for Peru in a preliminary phase of another major arbitration. A year earlier, LatinLawyer named their victory for Peru in the investment arbitration of Aguaytia v. Peru as "Dispute of the Year."