The decades-long journey of one of Ethiopia’s rarest bronze artifacts came full circle last week.
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed took receipt of an 18th century bronze crown, believed to be missing since 1993, at a ceremony in Addis Ababa on Feb. 20. The artifact, thought to be one of 20 of of its kind in existence, is believed to have disappeared from the Holy Trinity Church in Tigray, in northern Ethiopia.
Until its return, the artifact had been stashed in the Rotterdam apartment of Sirak Asfaw, an Ethiopian who fled to the Netherlands in the 1970s. Asfaw’s discovery of the crown itself was fortuitous: a visitor brought it to his house in 1998. Upon seeing the crown and correctly establishing its origin and value, Asfaw took possession of it from the guest.
But rather than return it to the authoritarian government of Meles Zenawi at the time, Asfaw chose to keep hold of the crown. “To hand over such priceless cultural heritage onto strange hands, or officials of that regime, is very hard to do,” he has said, explaining his rationale.
But that stance changed following Abiy’s remarkable rise to power. Since becoming the leader of Africa’s second most populous country, Abiy has pursued a reformist agenda that’s seen the release of political prisoners, including journalists and activists and successfully ending the twenty year conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Last October, Abiy became the first Ethiopian to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
To facilitate the process of the crown’s return, Asfaw contacted Arthur Brand, a Dutch art detective known for recovering lost artifacts. Once convinced of its provenance, the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs got involved in discussions with Ethiopian authorities, culminating in last week’s ceremony. The crown now sits at Ethiopia’s national museum in Addis Ababa and is available for public viewing.
The return of the bronze crown is happening amid conversations around the repatriation of stolen African artifacts currently on show across European museums. Despite a 2018 government-sanctioned report in France recommending the return of looted artifacts, the process of repatriation remains complicated and slow-moving despite requests by African governments.
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