The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has reacted to a restitution claim from the Ethiopian president by asking what happened to a gold crown that it returned in 1925. The crown has now disappeared.
In February 2008, Ethiopia made its first formal claim for the return of treasures looted by British troops at the battle of Maqdala in 1868. Claims were made to the V&A, the British Museum and the British Library. These included a request to the V&A for the return of a second, more important, crown made in around 1740. It had been on loan to the museum from the government since Maqdala, but only formally accessioned in 2005.
The Art Newspaper has learned that Mark Jones, the museum’s director, wrote to president Girma Wolde-Giorgis, via the Ethiopian ambassador in London, saying that he would first need to consult the other UK institutions. He concluded with a query: “We would be grateful if you could confirm the present location of the gold crown of emperor Tewodros II, returned in 1925, and whether it is currently available for public viewing.” Tewodros was defeated at Maqdala and committed suicide.
In 1925 the British government had wanted to give Ethiopian empress Zewditu an honour. British officials were unable to do this because George V was unable to award senior honours to a woman, even a head of state. It was therefore decided that the V&A should relinquish an Ethiopian crown that had been transferred to the museum in 1869, a year after the battle of Maqdala.
The crown was handed over to Zewditu at the imperial palace in Addis Ababa. On her death in 1930 it presumably passed to emperor Haile Selassie.
Richard Pankhurst, a British historian who has long lived in Ethiopia, believes the crown was “looted by the Italians” during their occupation of 1936-41. If so, it is unclear whether it was officially removed by the Italians or privately looted at that time. Ethiopian president Wolde-Giorgis has not responded to the V&A query.