Nefertiti was the wife of the controversial 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaton (also known as Amenhotep IV). Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived during the thirteenth century BCE, and were responsible for the move of the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. The site of Amarna was excavated by Ludwig Borchardt of the German Oriental Institute from 1912 to 1914.
The Bust of Nefertiti
On December 6, 1912, the artifact known as the Bust of Nefertiti was excavated. It is 3300 years old, and it is a highly prized, if not unique piece because, unlike the majority of Egyptian sculpture, the Bust contains facial detailing*. After finding the Bust in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, Borchardt wrote in his diary that “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”
In 1913 Borchardt met with Egyptian officials to discuss the division of the artifacts unearthed in the Amarna dig. What took place in this meeting was not recorded until 1924. The secretary of the German Oriental Institute who had taken it upon himself to record it wrote that Borchardt had concealed the value of the Bust from Egyptian officials in order to “save the bust for us.”
He reported that Borchardt had shown the officials misleading photographs of the piece, and had given them inaccurate information about the material used to create the piece. This document fell into obscurity until 2009, when it was found by an art historian in the archives of the German Oriental Institute.
Following the meeting, the Bust was shipped to Germany and entered into the custody of James Simon, the sponsor of the excavation. Simon donated it to the Berlin Museum in 1920, and it was put on display to the public in 1924. Upon its 1924 unveiling, Egyptian officials immediately demanded that the artifact be returned. In 1925, Egypt threatened to ban German excavations unless it was returned.
In 1933, Hermann Goring had considered returning the Bust to King Farouk Fouad of Egypt, but Hitler opposed the idea, saying he would “never relinquish the head of the Queen.” The Bust remained on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin until the museum closed in 1939 at the onset of the Second World War. At that point, Berlin museums were emptied, and artifacts were moved to secure areas for safekeeping. The Bust was moved around to multiple safe locations over the course of that war until it was taken into custody by American troops in March of 1945.
The United States—which had had the Bust in display at the U.S. Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden beginning in 1946—returned the Bust to West Berlin in 1956, at which point it was put on display at the Dahlem Museum. East Germany was unhappy with the move; they’d wanted the Bust returned to the Neues Museum (which had been badly damaged by an Allied bombing in 1943).
During the 1950’s, Egypt had attempted to re-open negotiations, but Germany was unresponsive and the United States simply told them to take it up with the German authorities. The Bust was moved around several times after this; in 1967, it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, in 2005 it was moved to the Altes Museum, and it was moved back to the Neues Museum upon its 2009 reopening.
Zahi Hawass, the former The Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, spent a great deal of the 21st century working to have the artifact returned to Egypt. He held that the Bust had been illegally removed from the country, and in 2005 he asked UNESCO to intervene in the situation. In 2007 he threatened to ban exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts in Germany if they would not lend the Bust to Egypt. He also called for a worldwide boycott on loans to German museums.
Within Germany, cultural groups and a fair few academics believe that the Bust should be returned to Egypt. In 2007, an organization called CulturCooperation based out of Hamburg handed out postcards depicting the Bust with the words “Return to Sender” written on them. They also wrote an open letter to the German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, regarding the Bust. Other groups within Germany hold that the Bust has become a definitive part of German culture, while German art experts refute the claims that the Bust was illegally removed from Egypt.
In the midst of these debates, German conservation experts raised the concern that the Bust is simply too fragile to survive a move to Egypt. Dietrich Wildung, head of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, stated that “the structure of Nefertiti’s material, plaster over limestone, is very sensitive.” If the Bust were to be returned to Egypt, it is possible that it would not survive the journey.
*Facial and other such detailing may be found on the majority of the art produced during the Amarna period.
Other Artifact Profile posts may be found here.