Ethiopian government attempts to prevent sale of looted shield

The British auction house Anderson & Garland is auctioning an Abyssinian warrior’s shield today, Thursday February 29. It is estimated at between £800 and £1,200 (around €935-1,400) and is offered alongside many other military accessories. This sale is controversial since the shield was looted during the colonial era, during the Battle of Maqdala in 1868 which saw British and Ethiopian forces oppose each other. The Ethiopian government contacted Anderson & Garland to have the shield removed from auction and returned to its original homeland.

The Ethiopia National Heritage Restitution Committee (ENHRC) sent a letter to Anderson & Garland, claiming that the shield had been “wrongfully acquired” and qualifying this sale as“inappropriate and immoral”. “We therefore strongly invite you to cancel the auction and ask you to contact the sellers to organize the return of this looted object as well as its repatriation to its country of origin and its legitimate owners” writes Abebaw Ayalew, the director of the committee which reports to the Ethiopian Ministry of Tourism. He can count on the support of Alula Pankhurst, a British academic and anthropologist specializing in Ethiopian studies, who defends this restitution on her social networks.

According to The Guardiana representative for Anderson & Garland acknowledged receipt of the letter, but the auction house did not provide further comment.

In the sale catalog, the object is described as follows: “a circular skin shield, decorated, with white metal straps and floral appliques”. Registration “Magdala April 13, 1868”, the date of the battle, is engraved in the center of the shield. Anderson & Garland mentions the events surrounding the acquisition of the shield, citing looting by British forces, but provides no details as to its provenance after 1868. It was likely acquired by a British soldier. The auctioneers did not provide any seller names.

The shield is one of thousands of royal, religious and military objects looted during the Battle of Maqdala (or Magdala), which took place in 1868 in what is now the village of Amba Mariam, located in central Ethiopia. A British expeditionary force, led by General Robert Napier, besieged and burned the fortress of Emperor Tewodros II. They also brought back with them many local objects, which then ended up in private collections or in major British museums such as the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Ethiopian government has been demanding the return of these objects looted in 1868 for years. In 2007, it had already asked British institutions to return around a hundred objects from Maqdala (including manuscripts, insignia and jewelry), in vain. . In 2021, however, the government was able to cancel the sale in Bridport (county of Dorset) of a Coptic Bible and three horn goblets looted from Maqdala, which were then returned to them.

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