Antiques Roadshow sparks debate as expert asks if ‘gifts’ from colonial rule will be repatriated

Antiques Roadshow has sparked a debate after an expert on the show asked two guests if they planned to “repatriate” items gifted to their grandfather under colonial rule.

On Sunday (10 September) night’s episode of the long-running BBC show, which sees members of the public learning the value of their treasured items and artefacts, the Antiques Roadshow team visited Crystal Palace Park in south-east London.

During the show, two women brought forward a number of items given to their grandfather, Sir Harold Kittermaster, the governor of the country then known as British Somaliland. The country declared independence in 1960.

Kittermaster formed a “friendship” with Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. The pair exchanged letters and Kittermaster was even invited to Selassie’s coronation.

Their original correspondence, as well as translations, were presented to expert Ronnie Archer-Morgan, as well as some elaborately adorned garments which once belonged to the emperor.

Archer-Morgan praised the “beautiful” and “sumptuous” items, saying he felt “privileged” to see them.

He also asked the women: “What are you going to do with these things?” and if they were considering returning them. The pair replied that this was “under discussion”, with one saying: “We’re just going to have a think about it.”

Archer-Morgan (left) with the items on ‘Antiques Roadshow’ (BBC)
Archer-Morgan (left) with the items on ‘Antiques Roadshow’ (BBC)

Archer-Morgan then asked: “So if there’s a call for these things to be repatriated, would you be happy to do that?” The women agreed, saying that they “absolutely” and “definitely” would.

The comments have now been criticised by a leading academic, who noted that Ethiopia has not asked for historic gifts to be returned.

Writing in The Times, leading Cambridge University professor David Abulafia called the comments “senseless”.

“Even for those who believe in returning objects, this simply doesn’t qualify because it was an open gift,” he said. “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?”

A BBC spokesperson told The Independent: “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 selection of correspondence between Selassie and Kittermaster (BBC)
A selection of correspondence between Selassie and Kittermaster (BBC)

Archer-Morgan – who according to the BBC website has a special interest in “ethnic, tribal and folk art” – valued the items at between £4,000 and £5,000.

“Selassie worked very closely with colonial Britain, hence the relationship with your grandfather,” he explained.

In the voiceover introducing the segment, presenter Fiona Bruce explained: “Occasionally on the Roadshow, we see items that provide a fresh insight into Britain’s role in Africa in the early 20th century and the contradictions and complexities of colonialism.”

Back in 2021, one Oxford University academic called on the BBC programme to further address the UK’s colonial history while analysing artefacts the experts are presented with.

“The BBC has a great opportunity to acknowledge the legacies of empire [and] show people how intimately bound up the global history of Britain is in the personal or the private collections of families and households across the country,” professor Dan Hicks wrote at the time.

“We need to start looking at the ethics and histories of the many different ways – whether by purchase, exchange, missionary confiscations, violent looting, and archaeological excavation – that objects came to Britain.”