Artifacts looted by British forces in the 19th century have been pulled from auction following an appeal by the Ethiopian government to the English auctioneers to “stop the cycle of dispossession.” The Guardian first reported the news.
The Ethiopian embassy in London wrote to Busby, an auction house based in Bridgeport, after discovering the items among the lots headed to the block on June 17. The two artifacts, a leather-bound Coptic bible and and set of horn beakers, were plundered in 1868 after British armies defeated Emperor Tweodros II at the battle of Maqdada, in present-day Ethiopia.
Soldiers ransacked the royal treasury and auctioned off its treasures under the guidance of a curator at the British Museum. The majority of the collection still sits in the collections of British cultural institutions.
In the letter, the embassy reportedly called the sale of the two artifacts “unethical” and that their return would help close a “painful chapter” of the nation’s history. It claimed that, though the two lots were modestly valued at about £700, they were an “important part of that story.”
The Ethiopian government has been appealing for the restitution of items pillaged during the siege for decades. In 2019, the nation renewed calls for the return of 11 wood and stone religious tablets, known as tabots, which sat for decades in the storeroom of the British Museum amid a wealth of Maqdala treasures. The British Museum responded by offering the possibility of a long-term loan agreement.
Some of the most important Maqdala artifacts have been on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum for nearly 150 years, including precious vessels of gold and silver used in religious rites. In 2018, the V&A opened a temporary exhibition that told the story of the British Expedition to Abyssinia, highlighting the “shameful” circumstances that led these items to the museum. The V&A’s director, Tristram Hunt, said at the time that they were working to return the collection to Ethiopia.