After 21 years tucked away inside a Rotterdam flat, a priceless 18th century crown is finally being repatriated to Ethiopia with the help of a Dutch art detective.
For more than two decades, the crown has been guarded by Dutch-Ethiopian national Sirak Asfaw in a secret location in his Netherlands home.
A former refugee, Sirak fled Ethiopia during the “Red Terror” purges in the 1970s. Over the ensuing years, he hosted Ethiopian pilots, diplomats and refugees as they passed through the city. He unexpectedly became the guardian of the crown in April 1998, after one of his guests left behind a suitcase.
Sirak said he “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'”.
Sirak refused to let the unnamed suitcase owner regain possession and instead hid it from the regime that had allowed it to be stolen in the first place. “I knew if I gave it back, it would just disappear again”, he told AFP.
One of Ethiopia’s most important religious artefacts, the crown is one of only 20 created and is one of the most valuable of those. Made of gilded copper, it features images of the Holy Trinity and Christ’s disciples.
Jacopo Gnisci, a research associate at Oxford University who confirmed the object’s authenticity, told AFP he believes the crown was given to the church by a powerful Ethiopian warlord, “ras” Welde Sellase. Although it bears an inscription dating to 1633-34, it was more likely made a century later. Gnisci said it is “of priceless symbolic value”.
“Finally it is the right time to bring back the crown to its owners – and the owners of the crown are all Ethiopians,” he told the BBC.
The crown is thought to be one of just 20 in existence. It has depictions of Jesus Christ, God and the Holy Spirit, as well as Jesus’ disciples, and was likely gifted to a church by the powerful warlord Welde Sellase hundreds of years ago.
It is currently being stored at a high security facility until it can be safely returned.
What’s the story of the crown?
Mr Sirak left his home country in 1978 to escape the political repression of the Communist government, or Derg, which had come to power in 1974. The regime unleashed a wave of violence known as the Red Terror, which killed hundreds of thousands and forced many to leave.
The former refugee used to host Ethiopians who had left the country in his Rotterdam flat throughout the 1980s and 1990s. “Friends, refugees, whoever,” he said. It was one of these visitors staying at his home in 1998 who was carrying the crown in his bag.
Mr Sirak confronted the man and insisted the crown was not leaving unless it could be returned to its home.
After asking for help on internet forums – which yielded no useful answers – he decided the best course of action was to hold onto the crown until he knew it would be safe.
“You end up in such a suffocating situation, not knowing who to tell or what to do, or to hand over,” he said. “And of course afraid that the Dutch government might confiscate it.”
“I had fire alarms all over my house, eight or something like that. Really scared!”
But with the end of the former regime and the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last year, Mr Sirak felt the time was right to have a piece of Ethiopia’s history return to Addis Ababa.
He contacted Arthur Brand, known as the “Indiana Jones of the art world”, for help returning it home.
“I explained to him, look, either the crown will disappear or you [will], if you continue like this,” Mr Brand told the BBC.
“I said if the people who were involved at the time got knowledge of it, the risk was that they would come back and would take the crown from him.”
With the consent of the Dutch police, the art hunter placed the artefact in a secure facility. An expert confirmed it was genuine, and Mr Brand decided the best course of action was to announce it publicly.
“It’s an a amazing piece. It’s very big, I feel pity for the people who had to wear it on their heads because when you wear this for a couple of hours your neck hurts,” he said.
Both men are waiting for the Ethiopian government to get in touch with the Dutch authorities to plan the return of the crown.
“I want this crown to be a symbol of unity and togetherness,” Mr Sirak said. “The crown will be celebrated by all of us Ethiopians, even Africans.”