As the world celebrates the centennial of its discovery, Nevine El-Aref asks who actually owns the iconic bust of Queen Nefertiti?
It seems that there is no foreseeable resolution to the long conflict between Germany and Egypt over ownership of the 3,400-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti, wife of the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten. Now, a century after its discovery, the dispute over ownership is stepping from one level to another, and with no concrete solution in sight it has become one of the best-known international cases of stolen antiquities that Egypt wants back.
The magnificent painted stucco and limestone bust of Nefertiti was discovered in 1912 by an archaeological team led by German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt and sponsored by the German Oriental Society (DOG), the treasurer of which was the German Jewish wholesale merchant James Simon. The bust was unearthed while the German team was excavating the workshop of the ancient Egyptian court sculptor Tuthmosis in Akhenaten's capital city of Al-Amarna. Along with it were other unfinished artefacts, including a polychrome bust of the queen and plaster casts representing other members of Akhenaten's family and entourage. It meant that bust, as well as the other objects, never went on display and was damaged during its creation or was used as a model and was never indented for view.
Soon after its discovery, the bust was held as one of the most iconic images of ancient Egyptian art. It depicts Queen Nefertiti, whose name means "the beautiful has arrived", with full red lips, a graceful, elongated neck decorated with the vibrant colours of a necklace, and a tall, blue flat-topped crown which contrasts with the sepia tone of her smooth skin. Although one of the bust's inlaid crystal eyes is missing ,both eyelids and brows are outlined in black.
Wafaa El-Seddiq, head of the International Union for the Preservation of Heritage and former director of the Egyptian Museum, told Al-Ahram Weekly that when Borchardt saw the bust he immediately recognised the unique nature and artistic quality of the piece, as well as its historical importance. He recognised it as belonging to the legendary queen, wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten. He was impressed by the beauty and skilful crafting of the bust, and it made him eager to secure it for Germany.
Sheddiq went on to say that, according to the documented evidence and Borchardt's diary, he noted the importance of the artefact on the first day of the discovery. This should have led to his placing it in the collection of the Egyptian Antiquities Service according to the Antiquities Law at that time, No. 14 of 1912. The rules of sharing applicable at that time stipulated that repeated and common spoils of any new discovery be split between the Egyptian antiquities authority and the foreign mission concerned, while unique and distinguished artefacts must be placed in the Egyptian share.
Borchardt either did not declare the bust, or hid it under less important objects. Or it is possible that the Egyptian authorities failed to recognise its importance -- as the Germans claimed -- whenBorchardt described the bust in the division protocol as a gypsum statue of an unknown princess of the royal family.
In a book published in 1985, Nefertiti Quiere Volver a Casa (Nefertiti Wants To Go Home), authors Gert Von Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr revealed Borchardt's letter to Simon requiring him not to show the bust, which was kept secretly at Simon's house, in order to avoid trouble with Egyptian officials.
The existence of the bust appears to have been kept undercover until 1924, when it appeared for the first time in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Seddiq told the Weekly that some archaeologists and concerned people believe the discovery of the intact tomb of the golden king Tutankhamun and its treasured funerary collection in the Valley of the Kings on Luxor's west bank by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 triggered the Germans' unveiling of their unique bust of Nefertiti, now known to be Tutankhamun's stepmother.[not his mother-in-law]
N Borchardt 's earlier precautions were thrown to the wind. When it went on show the Egyptian authorities claimed this was the first they knew of the bust, and that they had certainly never expressly agreed for this piece to be included in the German share of the Tel Al-Amarna finds.
The principle, since the earliest days of cultural property legislation, 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 grant that permission.
Egypt began to demand the restitution of the bust. According to Borchardt's diary the service, on that occasion, took 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.
In 1925, Egypt threatened to ban German excavations in Egypt unless Nefertiti was returned. In 1929 Egypt offered to exchange other artefacts for Nefertiti, 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. He announced that she was his beloved possession and would remain in Germany for ever.
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 Legation of the King of Egypt in Prague sent a memorandum in April 1946 to the Allied Control requesting the repatriation of the Nefertiti head, and this was followed on 8 March 1947 by an official request from the Egyptian ambassador to the United States secretary of state. In February 1947 the Allied Control responded that they did not feel that they had the authority to make this decision, and recommended that the request be made again after a competent German government had been reestablished.
Egypt again tried to initiate negotiations in the 1950s, but there was no response from Germany.
After that there was a lull in the dispute between Egypt and Germany over the bust, but it blew up again in 2005 when Zahi Hawass, former Minister of State for Antiquities (MSA) 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 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.
The dispute took a more serious turn when Hawass renewed his call in 2006 during a speech at the opening of Egypt's sunken treasure exhibition in Berlin, where he spoke before the former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Horst K³¶hler. The following year the two countries squabbled over the bust when Hawass asked for it to be loaned for three months for the opening of the Atuni Museum at the upper Egyptian city of Minya, which shows Akhenaten's reign and history. The German minister of culture rejected the request, saying experts had reservations about the viability of transporting the bust such a distance. Hawass was not satisfied, pointing out that the bust had been moved several times between German museums.
Seddiq supports Hawass's stance. She describes the German response as "nonsense", explaining that since its discovery in 1912 the bust had been moved more than eight times: from its original location in Al-Amarna to Alexandria, where it was shipped on a sea cruiser to a German port; then to Berlin where it was kept in Simon's house until 1920 and then to the museum where it made its first public appearance. During World War II, the bust was transported along with the rest of the museum's treasured collection to a salt mine in Merkers-Kieselbach. In 1968 the bust travelled to the Dahlem Museum west of Berlin for a special exhibition. The Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg and the Altes Museum also hosted the beautiful bust during renovation work at the Berlin Egyptian Museum. In 2009 the bust retuned to the re-opened Neues Museum in Berlin where it was originally displayed in 1924.
Seddiq pointed out that all these moves took place over the last century when means of transport and packing tools were poor. "So why can't the bust cannot be transported now the technology of shipping and packing has reached a technical high?" she asks. "The reason behind the German refusal is very week, since very fine Islamic stained glass is now transported for temporary exhibitions abroad and it arrives safe and sound."
In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, judge at the appeal court and former legal consultant of the Ministry of State for Antiquities, Ashraf El-Ashmawi, who has followed the dispute since 2007, said that asking the bust for a loan had "weakened" Egypt's argument for recovering its priceless objects because it "indirectly" declared that Egypt admitted Germany's ownership of the bust and that Egypt wanted to borrow it.
"No one borrows something he owns," El-Ashmawi said.
He said that unfortunately the Germans had used the request against Egypt, considering the demand an admission from Egypt that Nefertiti's bust was a German possession.
Ashmawi told the Weekly that Hawass had personally told him that he was wrong to send such a request. He went on to say that the Egyptian antiquities department's wish list had come under discussion during consecutive meetings of the National Committee for Antiquities Restitution, established in 2007 to follow up on illegally smuggled antiquities and provide all means for recuperation.
"Nefertiti's bust and the Rosetta stone are the two objects out of the five items on Egypt's antiquities wish list that could return to their homeland, since they were smuggled illegally out of the country," El-Ashmawi said.
Regardless of all the stories told about the bust's trip to Germany in 1913, the only documented story is the one written in reports and documents found at the Swiss and German archaeological institutes in Cairo. These documents show that upon the discovery of the bust in December 1912, Borchardt hid it in a box in his own residential tent at the Amarna archaeological site until January 1913 when the division process was carried out on site. This, Ashmawi said, was in violation of the antiquities law applied at the time, 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, Ashmawi said, 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. It is confirmed from the technical report attached that the division process was marred by fraud on the part of the German mission before the attendance of Lefebvre, who was only briefed on the photograph of Nefertiti's bust and did not examine the object itself -- which B Borchardt had placed in a box in a badly lit room. The division protocol was entered as such afterBorchardt wrote that the head was made of gypsum. Nefertiti's head went to the German Mission in the division protocol under the description of "a piece of gypsum of a princess of the royal family".
Ashmawi accuses Lefebvre of negligence because he did not bother to examine the collection in the German part of the division. Seddiq, however, says that Lefebvre was deliberately misled by Borchardt. Borchardt wrote in his diary, she says, that before the division process he proffered Lefebvre a very delicious meal served with French red wine. He then led the French inspector to the tent where the boxes filled with the newly discovered objects were laid out. Lefebvre who was not an expert in ancient Egyptian antiquities, was shown the bust among other gypsum objects but not recognise it for what it was it was. The elegant blue crown that toped the beautifully painted head was hidden underneath a wig.
The third violation of the Egyptian antiquities law, Ashmawi said, was that Borchardt did not publish the bust scientifically within the five-year grace period approved by law. On the contrary, he published all the archaeological finds from his mission except for the Nefertiti bust. Borchardt, he continued, refrained from publishing or even it the bust until 1923, when a scientific report on the bust was published a year before it went on display at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.
Ashmawi's legal application is supported by a document found in 1924 in the archives of the DOG written by a secretary who attended the 1913 meeting between Borchardt and Lefebvre. The document, which was published in 2009 in the German magazine Der Spiegel, "Òê¦purports to show that Borchardt used trickery to smuggle the bust to Germany."
Borchardt showed Lefebvre a photograph of the bust that did not show Nefertiti in her best light. The bust was wrapped up in a box when Lefebvre arrived for the inspection. The document reveals that Borchardt claimed the bust was made of gypsum to mislead the inspector.
In December 2009 the director of Berlin's Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection presented the Egyptians with documents held by the museum regarding the discovery of the bust. These included a protocol signed by the German excavator of the bust and the Egyptian Antiquities Service. In the documents, the object was listed as a painted plaster bust of a princess. In the diary of Ludwig Borchardt, however, he clearly referred to it as the head of Nefertiti. "This proves that Borchardt wrote the description so that his country could get the statue," Ashmawi said. "This material confirms Egypt's contention that (he) acted unethically with intent to deceive.
"I am following my grandfather's steps to restitute the bust of Nefertiti," Ashmawi told the Weekly. "My grandfather Mohamed El-Ashmawi was the first person to ask for the recuperation of the bust in 1946 when he was Minister of Education. Now I'm following in his steps after 66 years." Ashmawi pointed out that his had grandfather told him when he was a child that he sent a request for restitution on the request of the director of Antiquities Services at the time, Etienne Driton, who was a close friend of Lefebvre. Ashmawi went on to say that, according to his grandfather, Lefebvre had told Driton that Borchardt has misled him during the division, and Egypt had to recover its bust. Ashmawi was also told that in 1946 several French journalists wrote articles about Borchardt's ruse to mislead Lefebvre and keep the bust for Germany. Unfortunately, he continued, it was the end of World War II and the Allies did not feel that they had the authority to make a decision, so they recommended that the request be made again after a competent German government had been reestablished.
Although he is no longer connected to the Ministry of Antiquities, Ashmawi feels it is his duty to press the case for the restitution of the Nefertiti bust. "It is even sufficient that at least I have played a major role in helping Egypt to recover one of its priceless ancient heritage pieces."
Egypt renewed its request for the return of the bust, using all the legal documents provided, in 2009 and 2011, but the German side refused the repeated Egyptian requests, insisting that Egypt had no grounds to demand its return.
In 2009 Germany said that the Egyptian request was not legal as it was not signed by Egypt's prime minister at the time and it was not addressed to the German government but to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs all the museums in Germany including the Neues Museum which houses the bust.
Ashmawi said that in 2011 the government of Germany rejected the demand, insisting that it had not changed its opinion and there was nothing illegal about the acquisition of the bust. Germany also pointed out that Egypt had asked for the bust as a loan, which indirectly meant that Egypt admitted the Germans owned othe bust. The German Government also said that if there were any plot by Borchardt as claimed, the fault was that of the Egyptian officials at the time who was not diligent enough to inspect the collection of new discoveries.
"We still have the right to ask for it," Ashmawi asserts, and adds: "We have all the legal tools that could make us win this battle."
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) 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 a plea in 1978 for the return of 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."
According to the National Civil Code of year 1881, which was applied at the time of the discovery of the bust, it is stipulated that antiquities are public property owned by the government and cannot be sold or offered or seized, and that even if an official has committed a mistake and given it to anybody or country, there are no rights of possession for the foreign country that took it.
"That is why we hold that there is no provision in the UNESCO Convention 1970 or in Egyptian law that prevents the request to restitute Nefertiti's head."
So what about the Rosetta Stone?
The Rosetta Stone is a different case," Ashmawi said. but "it could be returned to its homeland"
The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 in the Nile Delta town of Rashid (Rosetta) when soldiers belonging to Napoleon's expedition to Egypt were rebuilding a fortress. The stone had been used as a building block in the earlier construction, but French savants with the exhibition realised its significance and prepared to send it to France. In 1801 the French surrendered to Great Britain and the stone fell into the hands of British officials, who instead sent it to London. The following year it was presented to the British Museum, where it is still the most visited exhibit. Dating from 196 BC, it is inscribed with a royal decree of Ptolemy V in three scripts -- hieroglyphic, demotic and ancient Greek -- and in 1822 French scholar Jean-Fran³ýois Champollion made the fins; breakthrough in deciphering the hieroglyphs. Two modern inscriptions on the stone now record key moments in its modern history: "Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801" and "Presented by King George III".
Ashmawi said that when the French surrendered to Great Britain they signed a political agreement that forced the French to hand over all the antiquities they had uncovered during their stay in Egypt. This agreement was signed by the French and the British, without Egypt. "This is an invalid and unbinding agreement for Egypt as it was colonised," Ashmawi said.
He added that according with international law, "countries under colonisation are not a side in any agreements signed by colonisers." The same applies to the 1970 UNESCO convention. Hence, he said, the Rosetta Stone was illegally smuggled out of the country and can be recuperated.
"For me I don't care about the Rosetta Stone," Seddiq told the Weekly. She added that the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had four similar pieces from the Ptolemaic period.
"I see them as much more important than the Rosetta Stone," she said. "What is interesting me is the Nefertiti bust."
Seddiq suggests that Egypt gives the bust to Germany on permanent loan on condition that it recognises Egypt as the rightful owner. The German government must also offer Egypt a percentage of the bust's visiting ticket fe"If the Neues Museum in Berlin raises the ticket fee by one euro to help Egypt, every visitor would pay it with pleasure," she said, adding that the friendly relations between Germany and Egypt were very strong. If they found it difficult to supply the cash, the could compensate Egypt by providing scholarships in various fields and help in the construction of museums or schools, developing transport and so on.
Egypt , she said,had been very generous with European countries and the United States over the last two hundred years. Egypt had offered these countries many of its antiquities, either legally or illegally. In the 19th century several mummies and sheets of papyri were used in the creation of medical therapies and the production of papers.
Archaeological museums abroad are full of ancient Egyptian, Ptolemaic, Greaco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic artefacts. Even during the UNESCO Nubian campaign in the 1960s, Egypt had given whole temples and artefacts to those countries assisting in the salvage operation, including the Debou Temple which went to Spain.
Now, Seddiq says, it is the turn of those foreign countries to help Egypt by offering a share of the revenue they collect. It could be money or scholarships for restoration, documentation and curation.
The Weekly asked the minister of state for antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim, if there the ministry had any initiative to renew requests for the recovery of the Nefertiti bust, and if so what procedures did it intend to follow?
Ibrahim said that up to now the ministry had no plans in mind. All the papers and documents relating to the case under study and it remained to be seen what could be done. "If there is any solution to the conflict it will be offered," Ibrahim said.
"Egypt and Germany has a long friendship and strong political and industrial ties, as well as archaeological cooperation," Ibrahim pointed out. He told the Weekly that German archaeological experts had helped Egypt with the planning of the forthcoming Atun Museum in Minya.
Last Sunday, the director of the Neues Museum in Berlin paid ibrahim a visit at his office in Zamalek and they agreed to travel next week on an inspection tour of the new museum.
Ibrahim announced that on May 10 the first Nile cruise boat will resume the route along the Nile from Cairo to Upper Egypt. The route, which was halted several years ago, will stop in Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut and Sohag so passengers can visit the many archaeological sites including Amarna , Beni Hassan, Al-Balyana, Ashmunein and Abydos.