Sparring Over Berlin's 'Mona Lisa' German-Hating Frenchman Sparked Nefertiti Row

Germany and Egypt have long been at odds over the return of the famous bust of Nefertiti. Now documents found in archives show that the conflict was started by a Frenchman who had fought the Germans in World War I and considered them to be swindlers. He may have been right.


By and

This queen owes her immortality to a gifted artist. The bust he fashioned out of gypsum and limestone some 3,350 years ago became an eternal monument to her beauty. As realistic as the image is, it has the radiance of a goddess. "It's no use describing it; you have to see it!" said the German archeologist who unearthed the bust of the Egyptian queen in the desert sand almost a century ago.

Hardly anyone is familiar with the name of the sculptor, Thutmose, but the bust is of the famous Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile, Great Royal Wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. And thanks to a coincidence, a minor detour of history, her likeness is not on display in a museum in her native Egypt, but in Berlin. Or was it not a coincidence at all, but rather fraud?

For the Germans, Nefertiti is their perceived property, a national cultural treasure, their entry in the canon of the sublime. The bust represents many things, but most of all it stands for both the splendid epoch of ancient Egypt and the age of spectacular digs around the beginning of the last century, when Europe's archeologists set out for the Nile. Today, she is the star of the Neues Museum in Berlin's Mitte district, which was reopened in 2009. There, the bust is prominently displayed in the middle of a domed hall, bathed in soft light and admired by thousands every day. Of the more than 1 million visitors the museum attracts each year, most come to see the bust of Nefertiti, as if they were making a pilgrimage to admire this queen of the Nile. Nefertiti is Berlin's Mona Lisa, except that she is perhaps even more beautiful, more mysterious and more magnificent.

Fight Over the Queen is Far From Over

Of course, the Egyptians would prefer to have this heirloom of their magnificent history in their own country. Egyptian experts on antiquity have repeatedly asked that the bust of the queen be repatriated, especially in recent years. And although the government in Cairo has not intervened in the dispute, it seemed to have no objection when Zahi Hawass, the country's former minister of state for antiquities, demanded the return of the bust. Hawass is quick to point out that even the Nazis were once almost persuaded to send Nefertiti back to Egypt.

During his time in office, the relentless Hawass managed to bring a few relics of antiquity back to Egypt, but not the bust of Nefertiti. Then came the revolution and Hawass lost his position. But the fight over the queen is far from over, just as the fight over all the other antiquities from Egypt that were once distributed around the world continues today.

The National Museums in Berlin, as well as the German Foreign Ministry, ward off all claims with the argument that everything was done properly during the excavation in December 1912. But what exactly was considered proper in those days?

Now that debate is about to be renewed thanks to a study devoted to the origins of the controversy that is being published this week. Based on original documents, it tells a part of the story that was largely unknown until now. Bénédicte Savoy, a French professor of art history living and teaching in Berlin, discovered a "Nefertiti file" in Paris, which led her to write the book. In the preface, she acknowledges that it was the Arab Spring that inspired her. Savoy writes that she felt she "owed this story to the Egyptians, a story in which they have been overlooked in every respect."*

Egyptians Not Allowed into Egyptologists Club

The old and still acrimonius dispute can be summed up in a few sentences: Almost 100 years ago, there was one man who did not recognize the beauty of Nefertiti, Egypt's antiques inspector Gustave Lefebvre, who was originally from France. This young man, in his glasses and sun hat, an expert on papyrus scrolls and responsible for the export of antiquities, naïvely relinquished the bust to the German archeologist who had dug it up. Everyone acted in accordance with the laws in effect at the time, and yet they nonetheless seemingly behaved dishonestly.

Although the British controlled Egypt at the time, the French were traditionally responsible for the supervision, care and distribution of antiquities. Decades earlier, they had been the first archeologists in the country, and now the British tolerated them in their capacity as custodians of historic finds. The Egyptian antiquities administration even had a French name.

Around 1900, almost any nation was permitted to conduct digs in Egypt. This led to an atmosphere of archeological tourism and a race for the best dig sites. The only exceptions were the Egyptians, who were not considered exclusive enough for the club of Egyptologists. Instead, they worked as laborers at the digs, scraping their heritage out of the arid soil, while others made the decisions.

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1. a childs view from a german reader
Many years ago as a child I wondered how it could be morally justified that lots of foreign inheritance taken at times of colonialism could still be "owned" by western countries, museums, ... Wouldn't it be a question of fair play to return all these things ? Well, of course later on it became clear to me that this old world is much more complex ... If we wanted to set things straight we would have to redistribute everything there is. Let's for example take the dispute between Argentina and Great Britain or so ... such things are tricky and depend on the point of view. So we usually try to defend the "last line", the "law". If by law things went correctly 100 years ago then why should Germany have to return the single remarkable aegyptian piece it holds while France, GB, Spain and other much more prominent ex-colonial powers may continue to hold on to theirs ? Indeed if there is to be a moral solution it would have to be based on new international law. On the other hand I wonder what would have become of Egypt without the excavations and all the tourists, without western society to become outright adicted to its history. Isn't it fair that people who invest resources, health and lifetime get at least something in return ? And wasn't the movement of artifacts also necessary to make things accessible to scolars all over Europe ? If Germany held hundereds of important pieces, OK, but there's only that one item ... Considering the amount of contribution german excavators and historians made all over the mediteranian area I feel that our nation has some moral right to display such a totem of its inherited pride in its capital. Of course if I were from Egypt my feelings might be different :-).
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