A collection of Maqdala objects looted by British troops in 1868 became the bone of contention in April 2018, as the Ethiopian government pushed for restitution.Although the British museums contend that they do not have the authority to fully restore ownership to the Ethiopian government, the collection has finally been handed over to the present to the incumbent Ethiopian ambassador to UK Teferi Melesse Desta. Actually the return of Magdala treasures was made possible by British writer Tahir Shah who managed to negotiate the purchase of the collection for a few thousand pounds, through his Scheherazade Foundation.
Ethiopian Ambassador Describes the Stolen Magdala Objects as Wounds
In formally receiving the treasures at London’s Athenaeum Club, Ethiopian Ambassador Teferi Melesse Desta described the collection as similar to “a wound”. Getting back the Magdala objects will allow them to mourn for the Ethiopian lives that were lost and the trauma experienced by Ethiopian citizens, as well as the culture that was taken away from them. Moreover, the ambassador mentioned that the return of the heritage signals the restoration of all other Magdala items as early as the next few weeks.
The restored heritage came from two privately owned groups, which were acquired from the Bridport auction house and from an unnamed Brussels dealer and collector. The auction house offered three horn beakers and a Coptic Bible bequeathed to a British family. The collection from the Brussels collector included a priestly crown, a shield, a processional cross, a talismanic scroll, and a small icon of the Crucifixion mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. The embassy asked the auction houses to withdraw the selling of the historical items as British writer Tahir Shah was in the process of negotiating to buy the items privately instead.
Background Story Prior to the Restitution of the Magdala Treasures
Back in April 2018, and through former Ethiopian ambassador Hailemichael Afework Aberra, the Ethiopian government urged for the return of the artifacts looted by British soldiers during the 1868 battle in Magdala. However, the UK museums merely offered to return them on a long-term loan basis, which the Ethiopian government rejected. The government asserted that its interest is not just for mere display but in restoring a heritage that rightfully belongs to the country.
Back then, restitution seemed impossible as the institutions claimed they do not have the legal authority to impose deaccession on the objects.