arts and design

Looted artefacts withdrawn from UK auction after Ethiopia’s appeal

Two artefacts that were taken during colonial-era looting by British forces in Ethiopia have been withdrawn from auction after the Ethiopian government appealed to an auction house selling them to “stop the cycle of dispossession”.

Busby auctioneers in Bridport, Dorset, has withdrawn a leather-bound Coptic bible and a set of horn beakers from a sale on 17 June after the Ethiopian embassy in London discovered the items – which were taken during the Battle of Maqdala in 1868 – and wrote to the auction house.

In the letter, the government’s London embassy said the return of the items would help bring to a close a “painful chapter” of the nation’s history, and said the two lots – valued at about £700 – were a small but “important part of that story”.

“In the government’s view the auctioning of these items is at best, unethical, and at worst, the continuation of a cycle of dispossession perpetrated by those who would seek to benefit from the spoils of war,” the letter read.

Busby’s confirmed that after discussions with the Ethiopian government and the seller, the two items had been withdrawn. “The matter has been resolved with the vendor and the Ethiopian embassy in London,” a spokesperson said.

An Ethiopian Coptic bible taken during the Battle of Maqdala in 1868.
An Ethiopian Coptic bible taken during the Battle of Maqdala in 1868. Photograph: Busby Auctioneers and Valuers

The Ethiopian embassy called the decision an important move toward its goal of having all Maqdala artefacts returned from British institutions. “Maqdala is really important in terms of the shared history between the UK and Ethiopia, so today is a big day. A small step,” a spokesperson from the Ethiopian embassy said.

The Guardian understands that there are now negotiations between the Ethiopian embassy and the private seller of the items to secure their return to the country where they were taken from more than 150 years ago.

The Ethiopian government has been appealing for the return of items taken in 1868 for decades.

In 2007, it unsuccessfully asked for the return of hundreds of artefacts – including manuscripts, royal regalia and jewellery – being held by British institutions that were taken from Maqdala, the mountain capital of Emperor Tewodros II in what was then known as Abyssinia.

In 2018, ahead of an exhibition of items from Maqdala, the Victoria and Albert Museum said that some items could be returned to the African country on long-term loan. The embassy said that more than 20 private collectors have returned Maqdala items following restitution requests.


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