Two artefacts that were stolen during colonial-era looting by British forces in Ethiopia have been withdrawn from auction after the Ethiopian government appealed in a letter to the auction house selling them to “stop the cycle of dispossession”.
Busby auctioneers in Bridport, Dorset, has withdrawn a leather-bound Coptic bible and a set of horn beakers from a sale on 17 June after the Ethiopian embassy in London discovered the items – which were taken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.
The two items – an Ethiopian bible on vellum housed in a sewn leather satchel, together with an Ethiopian cross; and a set of graduated horn beakers – are from the estate of Major-General William Arbuthnot, a serving member of the late 19th-century expedition to Abyssinia, which culminated in the battle of Maqdala.
In the letter, the 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 said.
Busby confirmed that after discussions with the Ethiopian government and the seller, the two items had been withdrawn.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.
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.
Negotiations are currently underway between the Ethiopian embassy and the private seller of the items to secure their return to the country they were taken from more than 150 years ago.
The Battle Magdala
The Battle of Magdala was the conclusion of the British Expedition to Abyssinia fought in April 1868 between British and Abyssinian forces at Magdala. The British were led by Robert Napier, while the Abyssinians were led by Emperor Tewodros II.
The British won the battle, and Tewodros committed suicide as the fortress was finally seized.
The British forces went on a looting spree, taking so much bounty that they needed 15 elephants and 200 mules to cart it away.
Some of the bounty included more than 500 ancient parchment manuscripts, two gold crowns, crosses and chalices in gold, silver, and copper, religious icons etc.
According to historian Richard Pankhurst, a grand review was held, and then an auction of the loot; the money raised was distributed amongst the troops and no written list was made of who purchased the various items.
Many looted objects, cultural artefacts and art objects found their way into state and private collections, family possessions, and the hands of ordinary soldiers. Most of the books and manuscripts went to the British Museum or the Bodleian Library in Oxford University, while a few went to the Royal Library in Windsor Castle and to smaller British collections. Other looted objects ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Mankind and the National Army Museum.
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, before an exhibition of items from Maqdala, the Victoria and Albert Museum said some items could be returned to Ethiopia on long-term loan. The embassy said more than 20 private collectors had returned Maqdala items following restitution requests.