The 19th century tabot, a type of altar tablet from the Christian Orthodox Ethiopian Church, is regarded as so holy it cannot be seen or touched by anyone who is not a member of the clergy. They cannot be photographed and are only shown to the faithful wrapped and covered with cloth.
It is among hundreds of treasures brought back to the UK after the British invaded Ethiopia in 1868 and was due to be sold last year when it was spotted by Dr Jacopo Gnisci.
It will be handed back to the church by Dr Gnisci, who lectures in art at UCL, during a ceremony at the historic Athenaeum gentleman’s club on September 21.
Also being handed over to the country’s national museum are a shield, some ceremonial beakers and a lock of hair cut from the head of the Ethiopian Prince Alemayehu who was brought back to live in the UK by a soldier called Captain Tristram Speedy.
Dr Gnisci, who found the tabot for sale in the UK last year, said: “I have been travelling to Ethiopia regularly since the early 2000s and I have been working collaboratively on the Christian heritage of the country for a number of years, so I immediately knew what kind of artefact I was looking at.
“I tried to find a way to convince the owner to take it off the market, but, having failed and finding myself too short on time to find institutional help from Ethiopia to secure its release, I decided to acquire it from the owner myself so as to return it to Ethiopia. This was not my preferred option, but I think it was better than seeing it go into unknown private hands.”
Tahir Shah from the Scheherazade Foundation, which helped facilitate the handover, said Prince Alemayehu’s hair was being returned by descendants of Captain Speedy.
He said: “They want to do what’s right and I love the fact they haven’t put it up for auction or tried to sell it.
“I think they just want to close the case.”
He said the idea of handing over the treasures in the Atheneum, which dates to 1824 and whose members have included Prime Ministers, inventors and explorers, appealed because it was “the ultimate bastion of Victorian pomp and glory and scholarship”.
He said: “We want to bridge cultures and our very strong sense is the British establishment is going to be hit in the face by all kinds of cultures trying to get their stuff back so all we’re trying to do is facilitate and open a door and dialogue.”
A recent study found London is home to a vast haul of Ethiopian treasures brought back to this country after the British invasion with 538 items identified ranging from tiny scraps of manuscript torn up and stuffed inside a charm bracelet to royal finery and holy artefacts.