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British auction house withdraws looted Ethiopian artefacts from sale

BRITISH auction house, Busby Auctioneers and Valuers, has agreed to withdraw two Ethiopian artefacts that were due to go to auction on Thursday following discussions between the management and the Ethiopian Embassy in London.

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.

A statement by the Embassy said in the aftermath of the battle of Maqdala in 1868, British soldiers engaged in indiscriminate looting of both the Fortress of Maqdala and the surrounding areas, making off with innumerable objects of immense value to Ethiopians. Although many of these illegally obtained items are currently housed in public museums across the globe, some remain in private collections across the United Kingdom.

Since 1868, the Ethiopian authorities have consistently called for the return of all Maqdala loot back to Ethiopia. In that time, there have been more than 20 separate occasions when collectors have returned items to Ethiopia following requests for their repatriation.

‘Today, the Government of Ethiopia’s position remains unequivocally clear – the looting of Maqdala was a great injustice of the 19th century and persists as a scar on the, otherwise, warm and friendly relations between the peoples of Ethiopia and the United Kingdom. It is our belief that all Magdala objects must find their way home to bring closure to generations of Ethiopians dispossessed of their heritage and aggrieved by this painful chapter in our shared history,’ the statement said.

On June 9 2021, in line with Ethiopia’s longstanding position on the return of looted artefacts from Maqdala, the Embassy made a formal request to Busby Auctioneers and Valuers for the withdrawal of the items from auction with a view to facilitating their eventual repatriation to Ethiopia.

Deputy Head of Mission, Beyene Gebremeskel, said: ‘We are pleased to have reached an agreement with Busby. These items are of immense cultural, spiritual, and historical value to Ethiopians. Current and future generations of Ethiopians are deserving of the restitution of their cultural heritage, so we very much look forward to returning these precious items to Ethiopia in due course.’

‘The Embassy will remain in dialogue with Busby Auctioneers and Valuers on arrangements for the return of the items to their rightful home in Ethiopia,’ the statement added.

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