22 November 2009

Two-Timing Nefertiti? (Part II)

"Suddenly we had the most alive Egyptian artwork in our hands," the German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt wrote in his diary for 1912, "You cannot describe it with words. You can only see it."

That most alive artwork is the world-famous painted plaster bust of Queen Nefertiti, wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who now reigns over the Neues Museum in Berlin, enthroned alone in a domed room that overlooks the length of the Museum (below centre).

But here is what she looked like (left) when Ludwig Borchardt saw her for the first time. The photograph is entitled: "The first presentation of the bust of Nefertiti following its discovery on December 6, 1912."

And today, this most beautiful woman in the world has become the centre of a political storm.

The Story So Far

At the triumphant reopening of the Neues Museum last month (after decades spent renovating the site, destroyed during World War II), the celebrations were somewhat marred by an increasingly bitter dispute between the German and Egyptian governments over who rightfully owns the 3,500-year-old Nefertiti bust.

Nefertiti has been in Germany since 1913 -- but, almost a century later, Egypt is demanding that the object be returned home. Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, claims that Nefertiti belongs to Egypt. "If she left Egypt illegally," he says, "which I am convinced she did, then I will officially demand it back from Germany.” Strong words, and he added for good measure, "If it can be shown clearly that the work was not stolen, then there is no problem. But I am pretty sure that it was."

The German museum curators deny that Nefertiti was taken out of Egypt illegally.

As with all disputes over artefact repatriation, it is chiefly an ethical argument. The question is whether or not the German archaeologists tricked the bust of Nefertiti out of Egypt between 1911 and 1913, playing a underhand game that violated both the laws of the period and the ethics of the present.

Who's Who

The two principal actors of this story are Ludwig Borchardt (the bearded gent in the foreground of the photo above left), the founding director of the Imperial German Institute of Egyptology in Cairo, who supervised the Amarna expedition between 1911 and 1914, and Gustave Lefébvre, then an inspector of the Antiquities Inspectorate in Asyut, Middle Egypt, where Amarna is located.

At the time, excavated antiquities were subject to a "division of finds" policy, by which a representative of the Egyptian antiquities organization would select those artefacts to be kept in Egypt and the rest would be awarded to the foreign institution that sponsored the dig. The Nefertiti bust was removed from Egypt in the context of this division of finds.

The Case for the Prosecution

Chief archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt was so awed by Nefertiti's stunning beauty that he devised a scheme to smuggle the piece out of Egypt.

Every archaeological discovery had to be brought before the Egyptian Antiquities Authority for inventory and distribution between Egypt and the archaeological expedition. Inspector Gustave Lefébvre (in 1913, the Department of Antiquities was still under French control) was responsible for the divisions of the finds and, not trained as an Egyptologist, settled for a simple 50/50 division where objects made of plaster would go to the Germans.

It seems that Borchardt, already aware of the value of the limestone (sic) bust of Queen Nefertiti, rushed the negotiation, listed the figure as “bust of painted plaster of a princess of the royal family” and presented severely cropped photographs of the object to Lefébvre, who let the precious artifact go.

According to Al-Ahram Weekly, Hawass says that Borchardt did not declare the bust, or hid it under less important objects. Either that or the authorities failed to recognise its beauty and importance. Borchardt himself admitted 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. Whatever happened, the committee decided to take limestone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti and, according to Hawass, the antiquities authorities did not know about the bust until it was put on show in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in 1923.

The one certainty, he says, is that Egypt never expressly agreed that the bust be included in the German share of the Amarna finds.

The Case for the Defense

Needless to say, the Germans put another slant on events.

Since Amarna was under the authority of the Antiquities Inspectorate in Asyut, it was by chance (and not design) that the inspector there was Gustave Lefébvre. It thus fell to Lefébvre to divide the finds, even though he was not an Egyptologist but a classical philologist and archaeologist.

There had just been a change in rules about how to divide the finds -- much to the disadvantage of the German team and not at all what had been first agreed when the dig started. A letter survives that Bruno Gueterbock (secretary of the German Oriental Society [DOG]) wrote to Guenther Roeder, (Director of the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum) in 1924 which recalls the meeting in Amarna on 30 January 1913. It recounts how Lefébvre took a telegram out of his briefcase from Gaston Maspero, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service and the first Director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This telegram ordered him to execute the division a moitié exacte (in two exactly equal halves). "We shall be the first victims of the new decree of the ministry of finances", moaned Gueterbock.

"You can imagine," he went on, "that we all had very little hope that this wonderful piece would not go to Cairo, so little, that on the evening before Lefébvre's arrival, all the inhabitants of the excavation house walked in solemn procession, candle in hand, to the storeroom to bid our farewell to the colourful Queen."

"Everybody sat down at the large table in the excavation house and photos of all finds were passed from hand to hand." According to the official diary, Lefébvre was not shown only photographs, but the originals were also presented to him.

After the division, the excavator had the right to pack the material not claimed by Egypt into crates and send them closed to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There the crates would be stamped without any further examination of the contents. That's why, according to Hawass, the Egyptian authorities did not know about the bust until it appeared in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in 1923.*

But Borchardt, for his part, published a photograph of the bust in October 1913 -- within ten months of its discovery -- in an academic journal that would have been widely read by Egyptologists.** Although the image is only partial (perhaps the origin of the 'cropped photographs' accusation), it fully demonstrates the quality and significance of the bust.

Zenobia has two soothing thoughts and a modest proposal

The photograph (above left) of the finding of the bust shows an Egyptian workman holding the statue in its early, uncleaned state. While it is fair to say that it does not radiate all the beauty that lay beneath the dirt, it would take a particular kind of idiot not to recognize the importance of the find. Unsurprisingly, Lefébvre later denied having seen it or, if having seen it, did not remember:
A decade later, when questioned by Pierre Lacau [this was about the time when the bust was first exhibited in Berlin*], Lefébvre said he could not remember whether he had seen the bust or not. But Lacau's questions confronted Lefébvre with a dilemma. If he told Lacau that he had not been interested in seeing the original finds, then he had neglected his duties. If he told Lacau that he had examined the bust, how could he have justified that he did not claim the object for Cairo?"
What kind of idiot could have missed its potential splendour? An idiot savant, I'm afraid, whose mind is concentrated on texts and couldn't care less about mucky objects. The breed still exists and you will find them visiting the most exciting digs with inner eye fixed firmly on inscriptions or scraps of papyrus, all but yawning at the impedimenta of archaeologists.

Second, plaster isn't precious. Stone is considered much more valuable. Until last March, when she underwent a CT scan (we wrote about it at Vanity, Thy Name is Uppity Woman), it was universally assumed that this was a plaster bust built up around an inner stone support. Thanks to the scan, we can now see inside -- and have just discovered, to everyone's surprise, that the limestone core is a finely-carved sculpture of the queen (left) in its own right.

This 2009 discovery makes it rather an upside-down accusation to imply that Borchardt disguised the plaster statue as ... a plaster statue.

That's what it was. And not at all "a painted limestone bust" ... as much of the press is now parroting.

So it needn't be due to any 'sleight of hand' that Lefébvre chose to take limestone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti instead of the most beautiful woman in the world.

The whole affair will be hashed and rehashed in Germany in early December (almost the centennial anniversary of her discovery). As we write, Friederike Seyfried, head of the Egyptian and Papyrus Collection at the Neues Museum, is travelling to Egypt to meet with Dr Hawass in an attempt to end the increasingly acrimonious arguments.

Little Warsaw is Burning

The inaptly named Hungarian art duo, Little Warsaw (András Gálik and Bálint Havas) have thrown more fuel on the fire. They specialize in cultural displacement projects -- and you might say that, this time, they have displaced more than the Museum bargained for.

The two artists created an imaginary body for Queen Nefertiti with its dimensions based on the proportions of the bust. Travelling with it from Budapest to Berlin, they had the original bust briefly set upon it (below, right). Essentially, they took the ancient work of art out of its context and plopped it down in a different place -- about as conceptually modern as you can get. Naturally, the commentary that results and people's unexpected reactions become an integral part of the art project.

Perhaps, though, the commentary got a bit out of hand when they created The Body of Nefertiti.

"Queen Nefertiti Naked in the Berlin Museum!"

The body was deliberately cast in another medium than the bust, to avoid any pretension to stylistic unity. It was clad only in a close-fitting transparent dress, depicting the queen as essentially a nude. Then in Berlin, the pair of artists, under museum supervision, had the ancient Nefertiti head placed on it. The event was taped, and the video and the headless bronze (left) were put on view in the Hungarian Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, the world's most important showcase for contemporary visual arts.

Nefertiti's short journey from its isolation in a glass case into the world of contemporary art created a dramatic set of visual images. For a short moment, Little Warsaw had effected an installation piece with the bust as an active participant in a 21st century work of art.

Art? What art?

'We don't accept that such an important statue of Queen Nefertiti has been put in jeopardy for this silly project,'' sputtered Mohamed al-Orabi, the Egyptian ambassador to Berlin. "It is not even silly: it is nothing. I mean the project is nothing."

The ambassador further declared (incorrectly, as it happens): ''It contradicts Egyptian manners and traditions. The body is almost naked, and Egyptian civilization never displays a woman naked.'' And he warned, ''The moral and scientific responsibility of the [Berlin] Museum is at stake here,''

Zahi Hawass was even blunter, calling the piece a "degradation of the bust", created in "wanton disrespect".

The Egyptian culture minister was as harsh, calling the installation "mad and ill considered", and adding darkly that the Museum's acquiescence in the project indicated that the famous Nefertiti sculpture was ''no longer safe in German hands.''

Here's what the artists had to say:

The success of the project Body of Nefertiti is in unlocking a sealed artifact. It disturbed the established and conventional identity of the object, freeing the bust for contemporary rereadings. Nefertiti has regained her own personal history, escaped from her sacred shrine, with the unexpected emergence of a new event in her existence.

Of course, they were probably cock-a-hoop at the Egyptian response. The input of viewers to the issues raised by the idea of Nefertiti’s body is all part of the project.

And that is what they got. Among the issues raised was an apparently unutterable offence to modern Egyptian sensibilities ... and possibly, too, an affront to the bust itself.

So, what is it to be?

Does pure beauty mean that you must demand an equally pure line and aloofness in exhibition, use, and display?

Or was the Museum right to allow in -- as the artists think -- a 'breath of fresh air'?

By the simple act of releasing the bust from a glass cage and joining it to an elegant body, Nefertiti was no longer an isolated icon, but, for a fleeting moment, an integral part of a new artwork. Surely, then, the project gave added meaning and renewed vitality to the bust 3,500 years after another artist had created it.

Thutmose, The King's Favourite and Master of Works, who made the statue would have been proud. After all, he had sculpted it to be an artist's model, a piece meant for study ... and undoubtedly for continual contemplation.

* The excavation was paid for by James Simon, founder of the German Oriental Society, (DOG) with his own money. Simon was also the permit holder at Amarna and thus legally owned the German share of what was found there. Neftertiti was first kept in his private collection which is why the bust was not put on show immediately. He first loaned and then donated his share of the Amarna objects to the Berlin Egyptian Museum in 1920.

Mitt.der DOG zu Berlin 43; illus. 19

My thanks to Jan Bailey, who reported on 'Why Nefertiti went to Berlin' to the EEF-list on November 11, 2009, with extracts from KMT Magazine (and who kindly supplied the excavation photograph at the top of this post).

The discussion of the Little Warsaw project and the Egyptian reaction to it owes much to S.K. Urice, "The Beautiful One Has Come -- to Stay", in J.H.Merryman, A.E.Elsen,S. K. Urice, Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts (2006) 415-16.


Upper left: KMT Magazine 19.3 (Fall 2008), 'Why Nefertiti went to Berlin' (Rolf Krauss)

Centre: The Bust of Nefertiti on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Image Credit - Jon Himoff.

Middle left: Photo Victor Koen,
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Lower left: Little Warsaw 2002-2004: 'Displaced Monuments and Deconstructive Strategie'. Credit: Umelec Int'l

Lower right: 'A problematic juxtaposition'. Credit UWM.edu

Lowest left: The Body of Nefertiti (2003). Credit Acax.hu


  1. I found your article very interesting and full of useful information. Another useful source of information on this issue is Nofretete will nach Hause: Europa - Schatzhaus der „Dritten Welt“, by Gert von Paczensky and Herbert Ganslymayr. My own views are stated in a recent article where I conclude in favour of the Egyptian claim especially because the Germans have thousands of Egyptian artefacts in their museums. Altogether I find it incredible that Germans and other Westerners even dare to argue with the Egyptians over specific Egyptian artefacts, considering what they have already taken from Egypt. Does Egypt have any important German cultural object?


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  4. Thanks for an interesting and entertaining article about this beautiful bust, and the background to its loss, discovery, move to Berlin, and present condition.

    We certainly support its return to Egypt.

  5. I do hope that the deletion of comments above was not due to the blog authors political agenda and/or biased opinion in favor of the Egyptian stance pertaining to the return of the sculpture. That said, my only concern is that those wishing it's return to Egypt take care with what they wish...it may not work out quite the way they had hoped for. If radical Islamics eventually have their way in these countries those losses could be incalculable! I also feel that the heritage of Egypt's great past shared out in the world can only help to maintain the interest of many that can help this country's future. We, in modern times, soon forget the actual dealings of many of those in charge of Egypt's antiquities. Not to imply that there were not many who had great respect for and focus for doing the right thing for Egyptian posterity but there were many who were very corrupt (on both sides of this coin). The salvation of many of these objects is most likely due to the expatriation of said objects. I one day hope that Egypt's antiquities authorities can guarantee the safe keeping of these objects but for now I believe that these objects are best left where they are.

  6. Anonymous, I only delete comments that are commercial (the endless parade of phoney handbags, shoes, etc.), of which so many are sent by 'Anonymous' nowadays. Disagree with me as much as you please: if even passingly polite, I'll publish it. Thank you for your comment, Judith

  7. What a great enlightenment,I relished all the presentations and other related links about the great woman of all times who even today so much is been spoken a lot about

  8. Anonymous12/6/13 23:42

    What the hell was that body sculpted about? it doesn't even look like her body statue they had in berlin, are those guys dumb or something or they just wanted to piss hawass off?

  9. Anonymous28/4/14 21:19


    Your article is very interesting, in particular with the development of the duet of Polish artists.

    One thing is certain, it is that the people who live at present in Egypt, are not the descendants of the former Egyptians.

    Egypt was invaded in 7th century at first by Arabic and then by the Ottomans.

    The population of former Egypt completely disappeared for centuries.

    The current population of Egypt, is a mixture of Arabic and Turkish people, which sees in Former Egypt only a big bizness...

    If the Egyptology had not appeared, the Muslims would have completely unsettled all the temples and the pyramids to get back stones to build mosques.

    The question to ask oneself is : what is that invaders can demand what does not belong to them ?


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