100-year battle for the iconic Egytian bust of Nefertiti

Nevine El-Aref , Saturday 1 Sep 2012

As Germany celebrates the centennial anniversary of the discovery of the iconic bust of the beautiful Queen Nefertiti, Egypt's argument for its return includes a tale of deceit


As Germany celebrates the centennial of the discovery of Queen Nefertiti bust on 6 December - the day when it was discovered a hundred years ago - can Egypt wrench back such a unique bust?

A century later and the dispute over its ownership has stepped from one level to another with no concrete solution in sight. Although Egypt provided all the documents supporting its ownership and that its German discoverer, Ludwig Borchardt, took it by fraud, Germany refuses all restitution requests proposed.

The story of the iconic bust began in 1912 at the archaeological dig of what was the workshop of king Akhenaton's court sculptor, Thuthmosis, in the capital city of Amarna when German Egyptologist Borchardt and his team stumbled upon a magnificent painted stucco and limestone bust.

Fond of its beauty, skillful carving and historical importance, Borchardt exerted all efforts to secure the bust for the German share. According to the antiquities law and regulation at that time all repeated and common spoils of any new discovery would be split between the Egyptian antiquities authority and the foreign mission concerned, while unique and distinguished artefacts must be placed in the Egyptian share.

The head of the International Union for the Preservation of heritage and former director of the Egyptian Museum, Wafaa El-Seddiq, told Ahram Online that according to documentation and, importantly, Borchardt's own diary, he knew the importance of the artefact on the first day of the discovery: the Egyptolotist clearly identified the bust as Nefertiti.

Borchardt, however, described the bust in the division protocol as a gypsum (not limestone) statue of an unnamed princess of the royal family, although, again, he knew the real identity of the bust. With this nebulous description, the striking bust of the renownedly beautiful Queen Nefertiti, wife of the monotheistic king Akhenaton, went to the German share.

Furthermore, the bust remained undercover in Germany until 1924 when it first shown at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.

Egypt began to demand the restitution of the bust and in1925 Egypt threatened to ban German excavations in the country unless the Nefertiti bust was returned. In 1929 Egypt offered to exchange other artefacts for the Nefertiti bust, but Germany declined. The Egyptian government later made an attempt to have the bust returned, but Hitler, who had fallen in love with it, refused to return it.

After World War II Egypt made a formal request to the Allied Control Council, who at that time was responsible for art objects in Germany. The Allied Control said they had not the authority to make this decision and recommended that Egypt petition for the bust again after a competent German government had been re-established. Egypt again tried to initiate negotiations in the 1950s, but there was no response from Germany.

In 2005 the dispute rose again to the surface when Zahi Hawass, former minister of state for antiquities, asked for the bust’s return while speaking at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its countries of Origin. He also asked for the return of four other ancient Egyptian objects in addition to Nefertiti's bust:  the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum in London; the statue of the Great Pyramid architect Hemiunnu in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hileshenim; the Dendara Temple Zodiac in the Louvre in Paris and the bust of the Khafre Pyramid-builder Ankhaf in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.

Hawass renewed his request in 2006 but that time he asked for a three-month loan so it can be exhibited in the foyer of the planned Aten Museum in El-Minya where Akhenaton built his capital and monotheistic civilisation. The German government refused, saying that restorers had reservations about the viability of transporting the bust such a distance.

Appeal court judge and former legal consultant of the ministry of state for antiquities, Ashraf El-Ashmawi, who has followed the dispute since 2007, sees that such a request had "weakened" Egypt’s argument for recovering the bust because it implied Germany owned the bust. The Germans, he continued, did use that argument against Egypt.

The case for returning the iconic Egyptian bust
El-Ashmawi asserts, however, that Nefertiti's bust could still return to its homeland.

Firstly, he says, the bust was smuggled illegally out of the country. Reports and documents found at the Swiss and German archaeological institutes in Cairo when the bust was discovered show that Borchardt kept it in a box in his own residential tent at Amarna until January 1913 when the division process was carried out on site.

This was in violation of antiquities Law No. 14 of the year 1912, which stipulated that the division must be held at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo - not on site.

The second violation, the attorney went on, took place during the division process in the presence of Gustave Lefebvre, the French expert of ancient language and papyri studies who was a representative of the Egyptian antiquities service at the time. El-Ashmawi claims the technical report attached reveals that the division process was marred by fraud on the part of the German mission before Lefebvre arrived, who was only briefed on the photograph of Nefertiti's bust and did not examine the object itself. The division protocol was entered as such after Borchardt wrote, incorrectly, that the head was made of gypsum.

The third violation, El-Ashmawi continued, was that Borchardt did not publish the bust scientifically within the five-year grace period approved by law.

Most recent request for restitution
In 2009 the director of Berlin's Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection presented the Egyptians with a protocol signed by Borchardt and the Egyptian antiquities service listing the artefact as a painted plaster bust of a princess. Again, however, Borchardt clearly referred to the bust as the head of Nefertiti in his diary.

"This document confirms Egypt’s contention that Borchardt acted unethically with intent to deceive," El-Ashmawi concluded.

Egypt renewed its request for the return of the bust, using all the legal documents provided in 2009 and 2011, but the German side rejected Egypt's repeated requests, insisting that Egypt had no grounds to demand its return and that even if Borchardt had plotted to keep the bust, it would be the fault of the Egyptian officials for not being diligent enough to inspect the new discoveries.

"But we still have the right to ask for it," El-Ashmawi asserts, adding: "We have all the legal tools that could make us win this battle. There is no provision in the UNESCO Convention 1970 or in Egyptian law that prevents the request for restitution of the Nefertiti bust."

Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim said that up until now the ministry had no plans to renew the restitution request. All the paperwork and documents relating to the case are under study and they are waiting for results.

"If there is any solution to the conflict it will be offered," Ibrahim said. "Egypt and Germany have a long friendship and strong political and industrial ties, as well as archaeological cooperation," Ibrahim pointed out.

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