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Bible withdrawn from UK auction after Ethiopia demands its return

Coptic Bible
An Ethiopian Coptic bible on vellum |

An auction house in the U.K. has withdrawn a leather-bound Coptic Bible from auction after the Ethiopian embassy in London identified it as one of the artifacts looted by British forces from the Ethiopian empire’s fortress at Magdala during the colonial era and requested its repatriation.

The Ethiopian embassy said it has reached an agreement with Busby Auctioneers and Valuers in Dorset after making a formal request to the auction house “for the withdrawal of the items from auction with a view to facilitating their eventual repatriation to Ethiopia.”

“These items are of immense cultural, spiritual, and historical value to Ethiopians,” Deputy Head of Mission Beyene Gebremeskel said in a statement. “Current and future generations of Ethiopians are deserving of the restitution of their cultural heritage, so we very much look forward to returning these precious items to Ethiopia in due course.”

The Ethiopian Bible on vellum housed in a sewn leather satchel, together with an Ethiopian cross and a set of graduated horn beakers, had been scheduled to go to auction on Thursday. The two articles were collectively estimated to be worth around $950, according to The Telegraph

It’s “a well-established fact that British soldiers engaged in indiscriminate looting of both the Fortress of Maqdala and the surrounding areas” after the 1868 Battle of Magdala, the embassy said, adding that the items are from the estate of Major-General William Arbuthnot, a serving member of the late 19th century British expedition to Abyssinia, which culminated in the battle of Maqdala.

Magdala was the mountain capital of Emperor Tewodros II in what was then known as Abyssinia.

In a letter to Busby, the embassy said that the Ethiopian government views the auctioning of these items as “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.”

It added that Ethiopia’s position “remains unequivocally clear — the looting of Maqdala was a great injustice of the 19th century and persists as a scar on the, otherwise, warm and friendly relations between the peoples of Ethiopia and the United Kingdom.”

“It is our belief,” the letter continued, “that all Magdala objects must find their way home to bring closure to generations of Ethiopians dispossessed of their heritage and aggrieved by this painful chapter in our shared history.”

The Guardian quoted a spokesperson from Busby as saying that the matter had been resolved with the vendor and the embassy in London.

The Ethiopian embassy and the private seller are in talks to decide how the artifacts will be returned to Ethiopia.

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