Antiques Roadshow viewers question why the program felt the need to make the comments about the robe given away by Haile Selassie to his friend the British Somaliland governor
By Ewan Somerville
The Antiques Roadshow is under fire after suggesting that gifts given to a British friend by the former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie could be repatriated.
In the latest episode of the BBC show on Sunday night, two granddaughters of Sir Harold Kittermaster, the governor of British Somaliland between 1926 and 1931, displayed a garment that Selassie had given to him.
The golden robe, accompanied by a letter from the emperor greeting his friend, was inspected on the show by Ronnie Archer-Morgan, an antique expert in ethnic, tribal, and folk art, who valued it at between £4,000 and £5,000.
But some viewers were left baffled when Mr. Archer-Morgan, a mainstay of the show who has written a book on how Africans have sought to reclaim looted art from the West, asked the granddaughters: “So if there’s a call for these things to be repatriated, would you be happy to do that?”
The women, whom the show did not name, responded that they “absolutely” would, having said moments before that they wanted to “have a think” about what they planned to do with the artifact.
The discussion was introduced by Fiona Bruce, the host of Antiques Roadshow, as “items that provide a fresh insight into Britain’s role in Africa in the early 20th century and the contradictions and complexities of colonialism”.
The show has now been criticized by viewers, given Ethiopia has never publicly called for gifts to be returned.
Prof David Abulafia, a leading historian at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, said his first reaction while watching the program was that “this is completely crazy” and “senseless”.
He told The Telegraph: “Even for those who believe in returning objects, this simply doesn’t qualify because it was an open gift.
“It shows how people get caught up in a fashionable idea and they don’t actually think through the fundamental principles.
“In this case, we’re dealing with a gift – and to whom should it go? Ethiopia – well the Empire has been dissolved so you have a revolutionary government and they don’t qualify, while Somaliland is an anomalous state which has no international recognition, so where on Earth would one send it?
“Some of these completely unhistorical demands for restitution are extraordinary, it felt like it was the answer they were expected to give.”
Viewers complained on social media that the question about repatriation wrongly implied the items were stolen.
Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor between 1930 and 1974, had a mixed legacy but is known for resisting Italian colonization and for his position as a leader of the Rastafarian faith. His friend Sir Harold later became the governor of Nyasaland, now Malawi, where he was criticized by the white settler community for supporting the indigenous people.
There have been several spats over repatriations of looted goods between Ethiopia and Britain in recent years, but none over gifts.
The latest row was in May this year when Buckingham Palace rejected a call from the family of the 19th-century Prince Alemayehu to return his remains to his Ethiopian homeland.
In 2018, the Victoria & Albert Museum responded to Ethiopia’s call for the repatriation of artifacts looted by British troops in the Battle of Magdala in 1868 by saying it could issue a long-term loan, prompting a rebuke from Hailemichael Aberra Afework, the Ethiopian ambassador to the UK who said: “My government is not interested in loans, it is interested in having those objects returned.”
However, the Scheherazade Foundation, a private non-profit group based in the UK, then purchased a Bible and imperial shield which were seized by Britons in Magdala and returned them to Ethiopia.
A BBC spokesman said, “Where we have relevant details about an item, experts explore the wider questions of provenance in relation to a variety of contexts, including the history of the British Empire, which in this instance was around Britain’s role in Africa in the early 20th century.”
A BBC source added that producers were “increasingly mindful of the audience interest in the broader context around origins and the contested nature of the histories behind some of the objects examined, and subsequently, what contributors plan to do with these items”.
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