Auction House Cancels Sale of Looted Ethiopian Shield

Heritage officials have called for the return of the artifact, which British forces seized in 1868

Ethiopian Shield
The shield has been withdrawn from an auction at Anderson & Garland, where it was expected to fetch between £800 and £1,200 (roughly $1,000 to $1,500).  Anderson & Garland

At the request of the Ethiopian government, a British auction house has canceled the sale of a stolen 19th-century shield.

Officials with the Ethiopian Heritage Authority say they “welcome” the decision, adding that they hope to see “this treasured item return to its homeland and its legitimate owners: the people and government of Ethiopia,” per the Art Newspaper’s Martin Bailey.

British forces seized the artifact during the Battle of Magdala in 1868, and it’s been kept in the United Kingdom ever since. For many years, Ethiopian heritage authorities have been calling for the restitution of a sprawling collection of royal, religious and military artifacts looted during the battle.

Last month, the shield had been scheduled to appear in a sale at the auction house Anderson & Garland, where it had been expected to fetch between £800 and £1,200 (roughly $1,000 and $1,500).

On February 23, Abebaw Ayalew, the director general of the Ethiopian Heritage Authority, condemned the sale in a letter to the auction house. The artifact, he wrote, had been “wrongfully acquired in a context of a punitive expedition to Ethiopia,” according to the Guardian’s Lanre Bakare.

He continued: “As the legally mandated authority concerned with Ethiopian heritage … we would therefore strongly urge you to cancel the auction, and request that you contact the sellers to arrange for the restitution of the looted item and repatriation to its country of origin and legally rightful owners.”

The Ethiopian Heritage Authority’s restitution committee, part of the country’s tourism board, deemed the sale “inappropriate and immoral” and demanded that the auction house return the artifact to its home country, where it would be placed on public display, as the Telegraph’s Max Stephens reports.

The shield is adorned with white metal strapwork and floral designs, and it features a central boss engraved with the words: “Magdala 13th April 1868.” The inscription marks the date of the Battle of Magdala, when British troops defeated Ethiopia’s emperor, Tewodros II, and seized thousands of cultural artifacts. Since then, these looted objects have been absorbed into private collections and displayed in institutions such as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Newcastle-based auction house has been transparent about the shield’s origins: British commander Robert Napier had “ordered the destruction of Tewodros’ artillery and the burning of Magdala as retribution,” notes the lot listing. “This included the expedition and its troops looting many local artifacts which they took back to Britain.” At the same time, the auction house has not released the seller’s identity or any information about the shield’s provenance after 1868.

The canceled sale comes amid mounting pressure for institutions around the world to repatriate looted artifacts to their rightful owners.

Ethiopian officials have long been calling for the return of objects stolen in 1868, and more than 20 private collectors have agreed to their requests, according to the Guardian. In 2021, an auction house in Dorset, England, withdrew a Coptic bible and set of horn beakers after Ethiopian officials asked that it “stop the cycle of dispossession.”

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