Berlin's Nefertiti Debate Calling the Queen's Authenticity into Question

For decades, people have marvelled at the bust of Nefertiti. Now, some scholars say it's a fake -- made to hold a necklace. Museum scientists are eager to prove these theories wrong, but the mysterious statue might not be ready to reveal her secrets yet.

Of course they copied her. You can see it clear as day. At the Altes Museum on Berlin's Museum Island, a brief film runs in a silent loop on a monitor. It shows laboratory workers handling a replica of the Nefertiti bust built to test a new portable base for it. The monitor is part of a current display at the museum, one which includes four work stations set up in a large, glass cubicle to show just how complex conserving great works of ancient art is.

Museum visitors can look over the shoulders of specialists to see how the secrets of these old artifacts are revealed using infrared spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence and microscopy. The Nefertiti bust itself is only a few steps away. The piece, which bears inventory tag number 21300, is one of the most famous pieces of art from ancient Egypt. And in recent weeks, its authenticity has been the subject of much debate.

A sign next to the lab workers reads "Questions Welcome." And Henri Stierlin, a Geneva-based author, certainly does have a few questions. Stierlin is interested in the Nefertiti copy, and he's not referring to the white model of the bust shown in the film flickering across the monitor. His suspicions run deeper.

In a recently published book, Stierlin claims that Berlin's famous Nefertiti bust -- one of the prides of the city's world-class collection of museums -- is actually a fake. Stierlin claims that Ludwig Borchardt, the leader of the excavation that found Nefertiti, had the sculptor Gerhard Marcks make the bust in 1912 to serve as a display piece for a necklace that had recently been unearthed. "Until then, one could only see Nefertiti as she was depicted on bas reliefs," Stierlin told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Borchardt wanted to see her in three dimensions."

Stierlin's theory sounds exciting -- and it has proven adept at generating headlines. He says that when Johann Georg, a Saxon duke, visited the tomb in the Egyptian city of Amarna, they were immediately taken by the beauty of the bust. Borchardt, rather than exposing the naiveté of his royal guests, elected to keep the truth to himself.

Art historians have their doubts about this theory. "As to whether Nefertiti is a fake, I can't say for sure," says Ari Hartog, the curator of the Gerhard Marcks Haus, an art museum in Bremen devoted to the works of the famous 20th century German sculptor. Stierlin's theory has been lent credence by the fact that Borchardt's expedition included someone named Marcks. Hartog, though, says it was most likely the artist's brother. If the Nefertiti bust is indeed fake, says Hartog, "it's definitely not something made by Marcks."

You Can Prove A Fake, But Not An Original

Dietrich Wildung, the curator of the Berlin's Egyptian Museum -- and a long-time friend of Stierlin -- is even more emphatic in his dismissal of Stierlin's ideas. "We would not put an even remotely questionable object on display for 700,000 visitors to see every year," Wildung says.

Despite such doubts, Stierlin refuses to back down. "It's dishonest to display this object when you know it's not authentic," Stierlin insists.

One might think that the debate is superfluous -- that the matter could be settled simply by testing the bust's age. Unfortunately it's not so simple. And its further complicated by the fact that, the closer one considers the Nefertiti bust, the clearer it becomes that very little is known about it.

"You can prove a fake, but you can't prove originals. That's an epistemological problem," Stefan Simon told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Simon is a material scientist who directs the Rathgen Research Laboratory, which belongs to the association of national museums in Berlin. As a scientist, Simon's main allegiance is to the evidence. At the same time, though, his employers have a clear interest in disproving Stierlin's theory.

That, though, is a difficult prospect. Radiocarbon (C-14) dating measures the decay of radioactive carbon isotopes, necessitating samples of organic material. Nefertiti, though, is largely free of such material. A bit of wax was allegedly found in Nefertiti's right eye. When it was carbon-dated a few years back, scientists concluded that might be more than 3,300 years old.

Still, the wax sample's path from the bust's eye to the laboratory was long. It was obtained in 1920 by Friedrich Rathgen, the chemist who first directed the laboratory that now bears his name. For decades, Rathgen's sample lay in a small specimen bag in the museum before finally being dated, opening the door to doubt.

Debating the Evidence

The paint used on the bust yields even fewer clues as to its age. The pigments are all made from minerals, meaning carbon dating cannot be used. Simon points to the network of fissures and cracks in the paint on the surface of the bust. "I cannot imagine that one could reproduce that artificially," he says.

But Stierlin is unimpressed by such details. "People who know how to counterfeit paintings can also reproduce this craquelé effect," he says, referring to an artistic technique that makes surfaces show very small breaks so as to seem old.

Simon also points out that the complicated painting technique used on the bust, leading him to believe that it much older than 100 years. Under a microscope, Simon has found at least five different layers of paint layered one upon the other: first a layer of white paint with blue undertones, then white, then yellow, then blue, then red.

"Everyone knows that Borchardt possessed large quantities of pigment," Stierlin counters. He claims that Borchardt used the samples for experimentation.

The organic agent used to bind the paint is also not available in sufficient quantities to enable testing. The traces of straw in Nefertiti's headdress could, in theory, also be used. But testing would have be refined such that only a very tiny amount of material is used to avoid harming the bust, Simon says.

And then there's the matter of the left eye. According to Stierlin, Nefertiti never had a left eye. The right is made from quartz and beeswax darkened with soot. If there was a bit of telltale wax where the left eye once was, it could be tested. But up to now, no one has tried -- perhaps out of fear of damaging the statue. Simon says that there are traces of paint of the same type used in the right eye.

The sculpture is composed of the so-called Amarna-mix, a blend of gypsum anhydride plaster applied on top of a limestone base. The material is named after Tel el-Amarna, a small city in central Egypt founded by Pharaoh Akhenaton in the 14th century B.C. That is also where the bust of his queen would be found in 1912.

"This special blend was unknown before 1912," said Simon says, which would mean that Borchardt and his contemporaries could not have known its exact composition. Currently, researchers are comparing material used in the Nefertiti bust with that utilized in statues of her husband, Akhenaton, and other artifacts from the Amarna period. A model of her husband is also currently in Berlin -- lying in storage in much worse condition.

The secrets held by Nefertiti seem almost endless, despite the bust having been an object of all manner of tests for years. Why, for example, was so much oripiment, a toxic arsenic sulfide, used in the yellow paint? And just how solid is the bust? In a recent examination using a remote sensing technique known as video holography, Simon and his colleagues found damaged areas around the statue's headdress and upper chest. The scientists are particularly worried about the condition of the layered paint, bits of which have been flaking off for years.

One Mysterious Lady

The debate about Nefertiti's authenticity is not likely to go away any time soon. The emblematic character that makes her so attractive also makes her the perfect blank slate for theories like Stierlin's. And he's not alone, as the Berlin-based historian Erdogan Ercivan also maintains that the bust is a fake. And even if the evidence supporting such doubt is scant, the suspicion is difficult to explain away.

Simon dreams of one day hosting a colloquium of experts drawn from the world's best museums, who would work together on unlocking some of the statue's secrets. Perhaps they could come from London's British Museum or the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where Simon used to work. Or maybe from the Louvre in Paris, whose lab employs 180 people.

Simon's lab in Berlin, on the other hand, has 12. And the slow pace of the current work guarantees that, for the time being, the mysteries surrounding Nefertiti will remain just that.

For his part, Henri Stierlin says he can wait. "They know I'm right," he says.

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