Nefertiti: How deceit won a beautiful woman

Nevine El-Aref, Thursday 8 Sep 2011

Can a 1924 document charging German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt with cheating to secure the Nefertiti bust for Germany guarantee its return to Egypt?

The conflict between Egypt and Germany over the 3,400-year-old iconic bust of Queen Nefertiti has again come to the fore following the discovery of a 1924 document revealing the mysterious story behind Germany's possession of the Nefertiti bust.

The latest edition of the German magazine Der Spiegel, published last week, contains a report that the German Oriental Association (DOG) had discovered a 1924 document claiming that Ludwig Borchardt, the discoverer of the Nefertiti bust, used a trick to smuggle the bust to Germany. According to the magazine, the document's authenticity is currently being analysed by experts.

The newspaper also said that the document was written by an eyewitness who claimed that Borchardt, who was keen on reserving the bust for Germany, intentionally disguised it by covering it with a layer of gypsum to ensure that the committee charged with supervising the distribution of new discoveries between Egypt and foreign mission would not see how beautiful the bust was or realise that it was actually made of exquisitely painted limestone.

The secretary of the DOG reported in 1924 on a 1913 meeting between Borchardt and a senior Egyptian official. Egypt and Germany had an agreement to split antiquities found by Borchardt's team, but the secretary reported in his memo that Borchardt "wanted to save the bust for us".

The bust lay wrapped in a box in a dim room when the Egyptian official, chief antiquities inspector, Gustave Lefébvre, looked over the artefacts from the Borchardt dig. The secretary wrote that Borchardt had presented Lefébvre with an unflattering photograph of the bust and claimed it was made of gypsum, when in fact it had a limestone core under a layer of stucco.

Whether Lefébvre went to the trouble of lifting the bust out of the box is not clear. However, the secretary who witnessed the meeting claimed there was "cheating" involved, since the Germans misrepresented the material.

A spokesman for the DOG told the British daily The Times that the bust belonged to Germany. "It is not right to complain now about a deal that was struck long ago," the spokesman told the Times.

The dispute between Egypt and Germany over the bust blew up in 2005 when Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), speaking at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin, called for the return of five ancient Egyptian pieces on display abroad. The objects in question were the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum in London; the bust of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin; the statue of the Great Pyramid architect Hemiunnu in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hilesheim; the Dendara Temple Zodiac in the Louver in Paris; and the bust of the Khafre Pyramid-builder Ankhaf in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.

The dispute took a more serious turn when Hawass renewed his call in 2006 during his speech at the opening of Egypt's sunken treasure exhibition in Berlin, where he spoke before presidents Hosni Mubarak and Horst Köhler. The following year the two countries squabbled over the bust when Hawass asked for a three-month loan for the 2012 opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Pyramids. German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann rejected the request and justified his refusal by claiming that experts had reservations about taking Nefertiti on a long trip. "We have to take [these reservations] seriously," Neumann said.

In response to the article in Der Spiegel, Hawass wrote to the DOG asking for a copy of the document.

"If it is authentic, we will work with all out efforts and power with the German government to recover the bust," Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which has possession of the bust, rejects any charge of cheating. The idea that the antiquities were not divided according to the rules in 1913 is "false", the foundation has claimed in a statement. Lefébvre, in other words, overlooked the importance of the piece.

The DOG admits the existence of the document, but also maintains there was no serious breach of the rules. "Nefertiti was at the top of the exchange list," a spokesman for the company told Der Spiegel. "The inspector could have looked at everything closely... It's not admissible to complain about the deal reached at the time."

Nefertiti's bust in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, perhaps the best-known work of art from ancient Egypt, was unearthed in 1912. Hawass says that Borchardt, anxious to preserve the bust for Germany, took advantage of the practice at the time of splitting the spoils of any new discovery between the Egyptian antiquities authority and the foreign mission concerned. Back then, the law required discoveries to be brought to what was called the Antiquities Service, where a special committee supervised the distribution. Borchardt, who discovered the head at Tel Al-Amarna, either did not declare the bust, or hid it under less important objects. Either that, or the Egyptian authorities failed to recognise its beauty and importance. According to Borchardt himself, he did not clean the bust but left it covered in mud when he took it to the Egyptian Museum for the usual division of spoils. The service, on that occasion, took the limestone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and gave the head of Queen Nefertiti to the expedition because it was made of gypsum -- or so it was thought.

Whatever happened, the antiquities authorities did not know about the bust until it was put on show in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in 1923, and they had certainly never expressly agreed that this piece should be included in the German share of the Tel Al-Amarna finds.

From the earliest days of cultural property legislation the principle has been that the country of origin must expressly permit the export of every single national cultural treasure. With respect to the bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian authorities did not give that permission. The Egyptian government later made an attempt to have the bust returned, but Hitler, who had fallen in love with it, refused. He announced that she was his beloved possession, and would remain in Germany forever.

The exquisite painted limestone bust has been on display in solitary, stunningly dramatic surroundings at the museum ever since. Two years ago, however, in a highly curious curatorial decision, two Hungarian artists were allowed to fuse the ancient bust onto a contemporary bronze-cast body for a few hours in an attempt to visualise how Nefertiti might have appeared.

Source: Al-Ahram Weekly

19-25 February 2009

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