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, known for tracking down 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, Asfaw told AFP the remarkable story of how he came into possession of the crown.
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”.
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,” he said.
Sirak said however that when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office last year, he felt that things had changed sufficiently in Ethiopia to finally give the crown back.
Brand said Sirak had contacted him and “told me he was in possession of an Ethiopian artifact of great cultural importance.
The Dutch government too confirmed to AFP that Brand had told them about the crown’s existence saying “its authenticity will now have to be established in close cooperation with Ethiopian authorities,” before the next steps will be taken.
This crown has an inscription dating to 1633-34, but Gnisci said it was more likely to have been made a century later and was commissioned by one of Ethiopia’s most powerful warlords, “ras” Welde Sellase.
The last time the crown was seen in public, it was worn by a priest in a photograph taken in 1993 before it disappeared, said Gnisci. An investigation was launched at the time but the culprits were never found.
“These crowns are of priceless symbolic value and it is important that they are returned to Ethiopia,” said Gnisci.
“This is Ethiopian cultural heritage, this is Ethiopia’s identity and finally it feels good to give it back,” said Sirak.