ADDIS ABEBA – A priceless 18th-century crown has been handed over to the Ethiopian government from the Netherlands on Wednesday after an Ethiopian diaspora found it in a suitcase and hid it in his apartment for two decades.
The crown, featuring images of Christ and the Twelve Apostles, was unearthed after refugee-turned-Dutch-citizen Sirak Asfaw contacted Dutch ‘art detective’ Arthur Brand that authenticated the artifact.
The Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Sigrid Kaag, came to Ethiopia and handed over the crown to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Wednesday.
The Netherlands government facilitated the handover with the belief that “it has a duty to restitute this important artifact back to Ethiopia”, the Prime minister office said.
The finding of the crown – which experts say belongs to a series of some of Ethiopia’s most important cultural artifacts – has a remarkable story.
Speaking to AFP in October last year, Sirak, a management consultant for the Dutch government after fleeing Ethiopia during the late 1970s during the so-called “Red Terror” purges, said he used to receive a stream of Ethiopians including pilots and diplomats, along with people who had fled a continuous cycle of hardship in Africa’s most ancient country.
Then, in April 1998, while looking for a document, Sirak stumbled upon the crown 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.
– ‘It would just disappear’ –
Sirak said he confronted the suitcase’s owner – whom he did not identify – and told him that the crown “will not leave my house unless it goes back to Ethiopia”.
Shortly afterwards, Sirak posted a message on an Ethiopian chat group on the internet — still a new phenomenon back in 1998 — asking what people thought he should do with “an Ethiopian artifact”.
But he did not get a satisfactory answer “and I did not want to return it to the same regime that had made it possible for the crown to get stolen,” he said.
The former refugee decided to become the crown’s de facto guardian “until such time it could go back”.
For 21 years the crown was hidden in his apartment as Ethiopia continued to be ruled by an iron-fisted one-party government.
During that time, Sirak was pressured by Ethiopians who knew he had the crown and wanted to force him to give it back.
“But I knew if I gave it back, it would just disappear again,” Sirak told AFP.
He said however that when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018, he felt that things had changed sufficiently in Ethiopia to finally give the crown back.
Sirak – seen in the photo with prime minister Abiy above in the photo – was part of the Dutch government’s delegation that brought the crown back to Ethiopia on Wednesday.