British Museum Being Investigated For Stolen Artifacts

A regulatory office is investigating the British Museum over allegations the institution has been overly secretive about 11 Ethiopian artifacts in its collection that were looted by soldiers in 1868.

The artifacts are sacred wood and stone altar tablets, or tabots, that were stolen by British soldiers during the Battle of Maqdala. The items have never been on public display and tradition states that only priests from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church can see them, barring them from examination by the museum’s curators and trustees.

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A complaint has been submitted to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) arguing the British Museum failed to disclose materials about the artifacts following a freedom of information request. The request was submitted last August by the non-profit organization Returning Heritage.

The organization said the museum’s reply omitted relevant materials and overly redacted other information about the institution’s international discussions on the Ethiopian artifacts. While the British Museum Act 1963 bars the sale, exchange, dispersal, or disposal of objects except in very limited circumstances, Returning Heritage argued that the ambiguous status of other disputed artifacts in its collection means the Ethiopian tabots could now be returned.

“The act is very explicit that the museum [can’t] return objects,” said Returning Heritage managing editor Lewis McNaught told the Guardian. “But there are some legal exemptions within the act. And one of those exemptions allows the trustees to return certain items if they consider them ‘unfit to be retained’.”

According to the Guardian‘s report, Returning Heritage believes that the restrictions that prevent the exhibition and study of the tabots—including the British Museum’s highly secured basement storeroom that only Ethiopian clergy can enter—fit this exemption category.

The organization requested information from meetings where British Museum trustees discussed the sacred items for possible insights into why the senior officials don’t believe they can be lawfully returned.

“Our client seeks information from the museum that many would argue should be in the public domain by default,” The organization’s legal counsel, Tom Short, told the Guardian. “[It] concerns decision-making by a major public institution on a matter of very significant public interest.”

The British Museum has the largest holdings of this kind in the UK. Last September, a tabot taken during the same 1868 battle was restituted in a church service after a university lecturer spotted the item in an online sale, failed to convince the seller to return it, and then purchased it with that goal.

In February, Westminster Abbey said its Dean and Chapter, the ecclesiastical governing body, “decided in principle” a looted Ethiopian tablet sealed inside an altar should be returned. It was also taken during The Battle of Maqdala and had been donated to the abbey.

In 2019, the British Museum said its long-term ambition was a loan of the tabots to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in London.

The British Museum did not respond to an inquiry from ARTnews by press time.

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