THIS Sept 27 file photo shows an 18th century Ethiopian crown at an undisclosed high-security storage facility in the Netherlands.—AFP
THIS Sept 27 file photo shows an 18th century Ethiopian crown at an undisclosed high-security storage facility in the Netherlands.—AFP

ROTTERDAM: A priceless 18th-century Ethiopian crown is set to be returned from the Netherlands to Addis Ababa after a one-time refugee found it in a suitcase and hid it in his apartment for two decades.

The ornate gilded copper headgear, featuring images of Christ and the Twelve Apostles, was unearthed after refugee-turned-Dutch-citizen Sirak Asfaw contacted Dutch ‘art detective’ Arthur Brand.

Brand, dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the art world” for his discoveries of missing works, said the crown, which is currently being held in a secure location, would soon be handed to the Ethiopian authorities.

Speaking at his apartment in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, Sirak said the remarkable story of how he came into possession of the crown — which experts say belongs to a series of some of Ethiopia’s most important cultural artefacts.

Sirak, a former Ethiopian refugee who today works as a management consultant for the Dutch government, fled the country during the late 1970s during the so-called “Red Terror” purges.

Once settled in the Nethe­r­lands, Sirak 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.

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 phenomena back in 1998 — asking what people thought he should do with “an Ethiopian artefact”.

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.

Published in Dawn, October 3rd, 2019