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A Victorian set of two graduated horn beakers, and one other, with silver mounts, each hallmarked for Wright & Davies, London 1875. This lot was withdrawn from the June 17 sale at British auction house Busby. (all images courtesy Busby)

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In response to appeals from the Ethiopian government, a leather-bound Ethiopian Coptic Bible and a set of Victorian graduated horn beakers were withdrawn from a June 17 sale at Busby, a small auction house in southwest England. The artifacts were looted in 1868 during the Battle of Maqdala, a punitive raid by British colonial forces against Emperor Tewodros II. Negotiations regarding the objects’ repatriation are reportedly underway between the consignor and the Ethiopian government.

Tewodros, who reigned from 1855 to 1868, sought to reunify Ethiopia through a series of military campaigns and strategic alliances. After being ignored when he reached out to British authorities requesting military assistance, Tewodros retaliated by taking several hostages, including the British consul. The British launched a punitive expedition in response, with General Robert Napier leading thousands of soldiers in the destruction of the emperor’s Maqdala fortress and the decimation of his army. During the attack, Tewodros killed himself with a pistol gifted by Queen Victoria, electing to die rather than surrender.

British troops looted the treasury at Maqdala, stealing hundreds of sacred and secular objects including illustrated manuscripts, royal crowns, ceremonial crosses, gold and silver jewelry, and sacred tabots. Supposedly, it took 15 elephants and almost 200 mules to carry all of the spoils. With the help of the expedition’s “archaeologist,” British Museum employee Richard Rivington Holmes, these precious artifacts were auctioned off to raise prize money for the troops. The beakers and Bible that were withdrawn from the Busby sale come from the estate of Major-General William Arbuthnot CB, who served as Napier’s Military Secretary on the Maqdala expedition. Two of the horn beakers, which had silver mounts added at Wright & Davies, London, in 1875, are inscribed “Magdala”; one is inscribed “This Horn Taken at Magdala.”

An Ethiopian Coptic Bible on vellum from the early to mid-18th century, housed in a sewn leather purse together with a Coptic cross, was also withdrawn from the auction.

On June 9, the Ethiopian embassy penned a letter to the auction house urging the withdrawal of the Maqdala lots, which were collectively valued at £400-£700 (~$550–$975). The letter said: “In the government’s view the auctioning of these items is, at best, unethical and, at worst, the continuation of a cycle of dispossession perpetrated by those who would seek to benefit from the spoils of war.”

A spokesperson for the Ethiopian embassy told the Guardian that the withdrawal of the items was “a small step” in the larger project of securing the return of the Maqdala treasure. Looted Maqdala artifacts can be found in institutions such as the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Army Museum, the British Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, and the Cambridge University Library.

Ethiopia has long campaigned for the return of the Maqdala artifacts, with limited success. When the Ethiopian embassy filed formal restitution claims with several British institutions in 2007, the requests were denied. In 2019, the National Army Museum returned a stolen lock of Tewodros’ hair, while noting that the return was “definitely not a precedent.” For several years, the Victoria & Albert Museum has been in talks with the Ethiopian embassy about organizing a long-term loan of Maqdala items back to Ethiopia, and the British Museum, which previously collaborated with the National Museum in Addis Ababa, has expressed interest in partnering with Ethiopian institutions.

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Cassie Packard

Cassie Packard is an NYC-based writer and cultural critic with bylines at publications including Artforum, BOMB, frieze, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.