Egypt requests return of Queen Nefertiti bust

Nevine El-Aref , Monday 24 Jan 2011

Nearly 100 years after its discovery, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities sends formal request to have priceless Nefertiti bust returned, citing UNECSO convention


The Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) sent today an official request to Germany asking for the return of the magnificent 3400-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti, now on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

The request was sent by Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the SCA, to three parties: Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin which is the governing body of all state museums in Germany (including the Neues Museum); the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs' cultural department, who will also have it forwarded to Parzinger; and to Germany's ambassador to Egypt.

These letters were sent with the approval of both Egypt's Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, and Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny, following four years of legal and archeological research on the matter.

Hawass describes the initiative as a natural consequence of Egypt’s long-standing policy to restore all archaeological and historical artifacts that have been taken illegally out of the country, especially those items that are considered unique. “The painted bust of Nefertiti is universally recognized as a unique and irreplaceable artifact,” he said, stressing that it is the first on a “Wish List” of five important objects that Egypt hopes to have returned, announced on April 2010 at the Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage.

According to a statement sent by the SCA, Hawass and the Egyptian government say they are confident that the German authorities will act in accordance with article 13(b) of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970), which calls on all states party to the convention “to ensure that their competent services cooperate in facilitating the earliest possible restitution of illicitly exported cultural property to its rightful owner.” Similarly, UNESCO's general director issued plea in 1978 for the return of an irreplaceable cultural heritage to those who created it, calling upon “those responsible for preserving and restoring works of art to facilitate, by their advice and actions, the return of such works to the countries where they were created.”

The story of the Nefertiti bust began on December 1912, when the German excavator Ludwig Borchardt and his team unearthed the bust of the wife of the monotheistic king Akhnatun at Al-Amarna archaeological site inside the workshop of the court sculptor, Thutmose. According to the records, Borchardt immediately recognized the unique nature and artistic value of this piece, as well as its historical importance.

Anxious to secure the bust for Germany, Borchardt took advantage of the practice at the time to split the spoils of any new discovery between the Egyptian antiquities authority and the participating foreign mission. The law then required that discoveries be brought to the Antiquities Service, where a special committee supervised the distribution of the findings. Borchardt either did not declare the bust, or hid it under less important objects. Another speculation is that the Egyptian authorities failed to recognise the bust's importance. According to Borchardt himself, he did not clean the bust but rather left it covered in mud when he took it to the Egyptian Museum for the usual division procedure. The Egyptian antiquity authority then chose to take the limestone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Thinking that the Nefertiti bust was made of gypsum, – a mineral that is also known as alabaster – the authority gave the invaluable bust to the German expedition.

Regardless of how Germany ended in possession the bust, the antiquities authorities, not knowing of the bust's existence, had never expressly agreed that this piece be included in the German share of the Tel Al-Amarna findings, and had only found out about it when the bust was put on display at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in 1923.

After World War II, Egypt made a formal request to the Allied Control Council (ACC), which was responsible at that time for art objects in Germany. The Legation of the King of Egypt at Prague sent a memorandum in April 1946, to the ACC, requesting the repatriation of the Nefertiti bust, following up with an official request from the Egyptian ambassador to the US Secretary of State, dated February 1947. On 8 March, 1947, the ACC delivered its response, saying they did not feel that they had the authority to make such a decision, and recommended that the request be made again after a competent German government had been established.

Hawass explained that Egypt recognizes and appreciates the care and effort undertaken by the German government to preserve and display the painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti. “Inspired by the excellent relations between our two countries, the Egyptian government is confident that the German authorities will assist in facilitating its return,” he concluded, adding that the Egyptian government and its people are eager to have this unique treasure returned to the possession of its rightful owners.

Upon its return, Hawass suggested, the bust of Nefertiti will be exhibited at the Akhenaten Museum in Minya governorate, scheduled to be opened in early 2012.


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