Germany’s illegal possession of the bust of Queen Nefertiti is being brought back into the spotlight as renewed calls for its return follow the recent appointment of Egypt’s antiquities minister.
Following the appointment of Mamdouh Al-Damaty as minister of antiquities, the hope that Egypt may once again have in its possession the bust of Queen Nefertiti has been renewed.
Al-Damaty is largely seen as a good candidate to recuperate the bust which is currently being displayed in Berlin’s Neues Museum, seeing as he has an outstanding relationship with the government in place.
He received his PhD in Germany and continued on as Egypt’s Cultural Counsellor and Head of Educational Mission in the country.
The unfortunate story of the bust of Queen Nefertiti begins in 1912 when German excavator Ludwig Borchardt unearthed it among several other artefacts in a workshop of the ancient Egyptian court sculptor Tuthmosis in Akhenaten’s capital city of Tel Al-Amarna. It was subsequently taken back to Germany upon his departure from Egypt.
Wafaa Al-Seddiq, former director of the Egyptian Museum, has noted that when Borchardt saw the bust, he immediately recognised its unique nature and artistic quality as well as its historical importance.
Nefertiti and King Akhenaten worshipping the sun god
Anxious to secure it for Germany, Borchardt took advantage of the practice of splitting the spoils of any new discovery between the then Egyptian Antiquities Authority (EAA) and the foreign mission concerned. The rules of sharing, applicable at that time, stipulated that repeated and common spoils of any new discovery may be split between the EAA and the foreign mission concerned, while unique and distinguished artefacts must be placed in the Egyptian share.
Sheddiq went on to say that, according to documented evidence and Borchardt’s diary, the excavator did not declare the bust and hid it under less important objects. Borchardt described the bust in the division protocol as a gypsum statue of an unknown princess of the royal family.
The bust was kept hidden in Germany where no one knew about its existence until 1923 when it appeared for the first time in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The EAA at the time announced that it did not know about the bust and had certainly never expressly agreed that this piece should be included in the German share of the Tel Al-Amarna finds.
Since the earliest days of cultural property legislation, the principle has been that the country of origin must expressly permit the export of every single cultural treasure discovered within its territories. With respect to the bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian authorities did not give that permission. The Egyptian government later made several attempts to return the bust though all failed.
Love scene of Akhenaten and his beloved wife Nefertiti
The last attempt occurred in 2005 by former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass who asked for its return as well as four other artefacts on display abroad: the Rosetta Stone, in the British Museum in London; the statue of Great Pyramid architect Hemiunnu in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hilesheim; the Dendara Temple Zodiac in the Louvre museum in Paris; and the bust of Kephren pyramid builder Ankhaf in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. All of the aforementioned attempts failed.
Despite all documents that prove that the bust of Queen Nefertiti left Egypt by fraud, Al-Damaty asserted, the official papers issued and signed by Egypt’s Head of EAA and the Head of Middle Egypt Antiquities Gustave Lefebvre at the time does not state that.
“That is why Egypt has failed to retrieve the bust despite all efforts exerted since 1922,” Al-Damaty said. He recounts that the French Head of the Antiquities Authority in 1922 had prohibited the Germans from excavating in Egypt for five years for their refusal to return Nefertiti’s bust. An agreement was made in 1929, he continued, to exchange the bust with two other statues of Ra-Nefer and Amenhotep Ibn Hapu but German citizens went on a strike to stop the removal of Nefertiti’s bust and the agreement failed.
In 1933, leading member of the Nazi Party Herman Göring considered returning the bust to Egypt as a political gesture but Hitler opposed the idea, and told the Egyptian government that he had fallen in love with it and refused its return. Hitler, said Al-Damaty, announced that Nefertiti was his beloved possession and would remain in Germany forever, adding he would build a new Egyptian museum for Nefertiti.
Following the end of World War II while the bust was under American control, Egypt requested that the US hand it over but the latter refused and advised Egypt to take up the matter with the new German authorities.
“Three other attempts were made then with the last being Hawass’ in 2005; all failed because of lack of documents,” Al-Damaty said.
Despite a renewed hope that Al-Damaty’s ties with German officials may secure the bust’s trip home, the legalities behind the matter are still a matter for debate.