The grandson of the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie is applauding a decision this week by a Swiss court to halt an auction of a wristwatch belonging his grandfather — which he and his family believe was taken during the 1974 military coup that ended Ethiopia’s monarchy — but he says the fight over the valuable item is not over.
Ermias Sahle-Selassie, who has lived in Washington for decades, says the court did the right thing by making Christie’s remove the Patek Philippe from the auction block, where it was slated to be sold Monday among a collection of rare watches.
In a promotion for the sale, the venerable auction house said that the watch, which had been expected to fetch as much as $1 million, was given to the emperor in 1954 during a state visit to Switzerland and that years later, the monarch “presented the timepiece as a gift to an eminent personality, whose descendant is now disclosing it to the world.”
Ermias Sahle-Selassie says he and his family doubt that story and believe the watch was among the possessions taken from the elder Selassie when he was deposed in 1974. He died the following year. Over the years, family members had heard of other items belonging to Haile Selassie being sold, the younger Selassie says, but this is the first time they know of one being sold publicly by a reputable auction house.
Christie’s would not disclose the identity of the “eminent personality” to whom Selassie allegedly gave the watch or its seller. The auction house says the last emperor of Ethiopia often gave watches as gifts — though Ermias Sahle-Selassie says his grandfather wasn’t known to be a re-gifter.
In a statement, Christie’s said the auction was halted “due to a dispute of title, which is a normal procedure.” Beyond that, the auction house wouldn’t comment.
The younger Selassie says he doesn’t know how long the court’s freeze on the auction will last. But he says he and his family are exploring their legal options to recover the watch, which he hopes will someday be on display in a museum. “There is a certain sense of hope,” he said, in a reference to the support he has received from his countrymen in the wake of the canceled auction. “This is not just a treasured heirloom to the family, it’s a symbol that they would love to see returned to Ethiopians.”