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How China Quietly Enlists Billionaires to Buy and Return Its Looted Cultural Heritage | Artnet News

How China Quietly Enlists Billionaires to Buy and Return Its Looted Cultural Heritage | Artnet News

Unlike with the Parthenon Marbles, here the British have been relatively willing to relinquish certain pieces of loot over the years: one of two copies of the great Kebra Nagast manuscript was sent back to Abyssinia on the order of Queen Victoria in 1872 (a mere four years after it had been seized); a silver crown was sent as a diplomatic gift in 1925; and a royal cap and seal were presented to Emperor Haile Selassie in 1965. More recently, the British Library signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which prioritized the digitization of the Maqdala manuscripts. Library representatives traveled to Addis Ababa in 2019 to hand over a six-terabyte hard drive of over 100 digitized manuscript images to be deposited at Ethiopia’s National Library. This would help provide local researchers access to ultra-high-resolution images, far more practical in many ways than the delicate and faded originals, which remain in the British Library’s stores. The costs of reproduction were covered by a “Heritage Made Digital” grant at the library.

Some consider these piecemeal or “virtual” returns unsatisfactory. Of course, the vast majority of the objects taken at Maqdala remain in Britain, but as a result of the recent initiative, relationships have vastly improved. Following decades of dictatorship and famine, Ethiopia is trying to turn a page both domestically and internationally. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed helped end a 20-year stalemate with neighboring Eritrea, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The country has also run its first fully democratic election. But the government has faced opposition from within, which erupted into conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, an armed resistance group from a northern province, in late 2020. As result, Ethiopia is in a particularly vulnerable position at what appears to be a crucial point in its modern history. As such its connections with the West, especially with the U.K., have become especially important. It might need more than anything to affirm these links through exchange and cooperation, or risk drifting further towards other spheres of influence, like those of China and Russia. At the same time, it seeks to cure its historical trauma with honor and dignity.


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