8 ‘Looted’ Artefacts Returned to Their Origin

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The Benin Bronzes on display at the British Museum.Credit...Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

As part of a growing movement to restore cultural heritage and address the legacy of colonialism and war, artefacts that were illegally taken from their origin to colonial lands have been instituted over the years. In today’s article, we will explore eight examples of unique looted artefacts that have been returned to their origin.

Emperor Tewodros II’s crown

In 2020, Ethiopia received a ceremonial crown that belonged to the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II, who died in 1868 after fighting the British army. The crown was taken by a British soldier and later ended up in the Netherlands, where it was discovered by a researcher in 1998.

Horn drinking cups 

These artefacts were a set of silver-embossed horn drinking cups that were part of the royal regalia of the Buganda Kingdom, which is now part of Uganda. The cups were looted by British troops in 1897 when they ransacked the palace of King Mwanga II. They were donated to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1905, and returned to Uganda in 2019.

Bronze sculpture of a cockerel

The bronze sculpture of a cockerel was one of the famed Benin Bronzes, a collection of metal artworks from the Kingdom of Benin, which is now part of Nigeria. The cockerel was taken by British soldiers in 1897 when they invaded and burned down the city of Benin. It was given to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1930, and returned to Nigeria in 2021.

Gilgamesh dream tablet

The Gilgamesh dream tablet was looted from Iraq in the 1990s and later sold to Hobby Lobby, a US craft store chain. It is a cuneiform tablet that bears a portion of the epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest literary works in the world.  The tablet was donated to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC and was later seized by US authorities in 2019.  The US returned the artefact to Iraq in 2021.

Necklace belonging to Ranavalona III

Among the African looted artefacts that landed on colonial soils was a necklace that belonged to Queen Ranavalona, the last queen of Madagascar who was deposed by the French in 1896. The necklace was made of gold and precious stones and was taken by a French officer who later sold it to a private collector in France. It was returned to Madagascar in 2016.

Bronze head of a king

Nigeria in 2021 received the bronze head of an Oba, or king, that was also part of the Benin Bronzes. The head was taken by British soldiers in 1897 when they invaded the kingdom of Benin. It was later acquired by the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Handwritten prayer book

A handwritten prayer book that dates back to the 18th century was looted from Ethiopia by British soldiers in 1868.  The prayer book contains prayers and hymns in the Ge’ez language, which is used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The book was later acquired by the University of Hamburg in Germany and returned to Ethiopia in 2019.

24 gold coins

A set of 24 gold coins were looted from Libya in 2011, during the civil war that toppled Muammar Gaddafi. They were minted in the 12th century by the Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled over parts of North Africa and the Middle East. The coins were recovered by Belgian authorities in 2013 and returned to Libya in 2018.

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