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Self-appointed custodian in Netherlands returns priceless Ethiopian crown

After more than two decades of keeping it hidden in his Netherlands home, Dutch-Ethiopian national Sirak Asfaw has revealed an 18th century Ethiopian crown. He came forward in an effort to have it repatriated to his home country now that it is under a progressive regime.

Many people would find it unfathomable to house a priceless artefact in their homes for fear of thieves or the authorities, but for Dutch-Ethiopian national Sirak Asfaw there seemed no other option.

Asfaw became a refugee during the “Red Terror” purges that forced him to flee Ethiopia during the late 1970s. He went on to settle in the Netherlands where he housed multitudes of Ethiopians who were also escaping the country’s tumultuous environment.

It is in this situation that in April 1998, while searching for a document, Sirak stumbled upon one of Ethiopia’s most important religious artefacts, in a suitcase left behind by one of his visitors.

“I looked into the suitcase and saw something really amazing and I thought ‘this is not right. This has been stolen. This should not be here. This belongs to Ethiopia,” he said.

Intuitively knowing the crown’s fate was of monumental importance, Asfaw sought advice from his fellow countrymen online and deducted that the crown could not be handed over to the Dutch authorities who may claim it nor return it to the regime that had failed to guard it.

“I knew if I gave it back, it would just disappear again”, he told AFP.

Read: Repatriation: why Western museums should return African artefacts

Asfaw kept the crown safely in his apartment for over two decades before finally contacting Dutch Art detective, Arthur Brand for support in finding a solution. The Ethiopian patriot felt it was the right time for the crown to be repatriated now that progressive Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is in office.

The crown in question is one of only 20 created and amongst those is one of the most valuable. Made of gilded copper the crown has images of the Holy Trinity and Twelve Apostles.

Jacopo Gnisci, a research associate at Oxford University who confirmed the object’s authenticity, told AFP he believes the crown was given to the church by a powerful Ethiopian warlord, “ras” Welde Sellase. He also detailed that although it bears an inscription dating to 1633-34, it was more likely made a century later and that it is “of priceless symbolic value”.

“These crowns are of great cultural and symbolic significance in Ethiopia, as they are usually donated by high-ranking officials to churches in a practice that reaches as far back as the Late Antiquity,” he said.

Gnisci, who is currently writing a book about medieval Ethiopian manuscripts, said the last time the crown was seen in public, it was worn by a priest in a photograph taken in 1993 before it disappeared. An investigation was launched at the time, but the culprits were never found.

The artefact is currently being stored at a high-security facility in the Netherlands and according to the Dutch government, “its authenticity will now have to be established in close cooperation with Ethiopian authorities,” before the next steps are taken.

After finally relinquishing his protection of the artefact, Asfaw said, “This is Ethiopian cultural heritage, this is Ethiopia’s identity and finally it feels good to give it back”.

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