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Flurry of appeals from Ethiopians in Denver helps prompt Christie’s to withdraw watch for now

Ethiopian-Americans in Denver and other U.S. cities are demanding that a Swiss wristwatch owned by the late Emperor Haile Selassie be returned to his royal descendants.

They’ve been working with Selassie’s grandson to persuade the auction house Christie’s to halt a scheduled sale. Late Monday, Christie’s officials agreed to withdraw the watch, which is valued between $520,000 and $1 million.

Selassie died in 1975 after a Marxist coup in which soldiers plundered his property.

“We are honestly shocked that a prestigious and reputable auction house will want to get involved with the sale of this watch,” said a letter to Christie’s from the Society of Ethiopians in Colorado, home to an estimated 30,000 Ethiopian-Americans.

“He loved this watch so much that he wore it on few occasions until his suspicious death in 1975. All of his property was stolen or confiscated by heartless junior military officers of Communist Ethiopia,” society spokesman Girum Alemayehu said in the letter.

Ethiopian-Americans regard the auctioning of Selassie’s watch with “outrage” because it was seized “without due process of law,” grandson Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie said in an e-mail from Washington D.C.

“We know that other personal items have been taken and probably sold. … Knowing the history of what transpired in Ethiopia, it is perplexing why such a reputable firm such as Christie’s would not say who the customer is who is the owner,” Prince Ermias said.

Wide concerns about re-sale of war plunder, arising around British colonial removal of Greek marbles and seizures during World War II, have led to increasing demands for return of property taken by enemy forces. Italy was forced to return a 3,000-year-old obelisk taken during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.

Christie’s has been advertising Selassie’s watch: an 18-carat gold perpetual calendar Patek Philippe 2497 with luminous numerals and military-style black dial. It was offered for a Nov. 9 “Important Watches” auction in Geneva, Switzerland. The watch was commissioned in 1954 as a gift for Selassie, presented during his official visit to Switzerland that year.

“This is a normal procedure we undergo when a dispute of title occurs. We cannot comment any further at this point as this matter is ongoing,” Christie’s spokeswoman Erin McAndrew said of removing the watch from the auction.

In recent exchanges, Denver financial services executive Mel Tewahade and attorneys engaged with Christie’s officials over requested documentation.

“Of course Emperor Haile Selassie Royal Family does not have ‘documents.’ Many were murdered, their property plundered,” they argued in an e-mail to Christie’s.

“The onus is on the seller, and on Christie’s, to establish that the watch was legitimately acquired by some third party. There would be a receipt, letters to acknowledge the gift, photos of the occasion,” they said.

“It may be that along the line some seventh or 10th party, or someone, purchased the watch. But that does not wipe away the taint of it being stolen property. Anyone acquiring this watch and knowing it had belonged to the Emperor Haile Selassie would also know of the brutal and obscene circumstances in which the Emperor died, would know of the sacking of his properties, and would know that it would be in their interests to be sure that their acquisition of the watch was not the fruit of a robbery.”

Source: The Denver Post