Re-Examining Nefertiti's Likeness and Life

Borchardt later mentioned that he had cunningly chosen the image detail "so that one cannot recognize the full beauty of the bust, although it is sufficient to refute, if necessary, any later talk among third parties about concealment."

Then he handed the visitor the preliminary list dividing up the finds. The Nefertiti bust was at the top of the right column, followed by about 25 plaster statues.

Ten stone artifacts were listed in the left column, beginning with a colorful "folding altar." It too was a very unusual work. The stele depicted Akhenaton and Nefertiti with their children. At the time, there was only one comparable specimen worldwide, and it was in Berlin. A Guilty Conscience?

The bargaining began. Lefebvre accepted the "approximate equivalency" of the two halves. He also accepted the proposal to give the plaster pieces to the Germans and keep the seemingly more valuable stone busts in Egypt.

But the list of finds obscured an important point. Although Borchardt knew that the Nefertiti bust had a stone core, he described the material as consisting entirely of "plaster." Güterbock, the secretary, had already expressed his "concerns" earlier, describing what he called an "obfuscation of the material."

But Borchardt ignored Güterbock's objections, arguing that if a different conclusion were reached later on, he would simply say that he had "been mistaken at first."

Then the chief negotiators walked into the warehouse, where the finds were displayed in open crates but, as Güterbock writes, "not exactly in the best light." Lefebvre could have lifted the Nefertiti bust out of its crate, but he didn't. After a "superficial examination of the originals," he gave his blessing to the entire arrangement.

But were the German's deceptive tactics truly objectionable? It was the eve of World War I, and the major powers were not exactly feeling generous. Haggling was a widespread practice.

Borchardt must have been plagued by a guilty conscience, though. Otherwise he wouldn't have refused to publicly exhibit the bust. After being shipped to Germany, it was initially placed under lock and key. Only Kaiser Wilhelm II, as the supreme patron of the Oriental Society, received a copy as a Christmas gift.

It wasn't until 1924 that the director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Heinrich Schäfer, held an exhibition -- against Borchardt's will.

The show was met with admiration abroad, but it also triggered resentment. The director of the Department of Antiquities in Cairo, Pierre Lacau, demanded the immediate return of the artifacts. "I believe we are defenseless, legally speaking," he wrote, but he also cited "moral" reasons, and he imposed sanctions. In 1925, he barred Germans from excavating in Egypt. It was a tough blow.

In the end, Schäfer agreed to make an exchange. But the press got wind of the imminent deal in 1930, setting off a storm of outrage. The plan was stopped.

Nevertheless, the issue continued to simmer, even under the Nazis. On Oct. 4, 1933, the Prussian Prime Minister, Hermann Göring, decided to give the bust to Egyptian King Fuad I as a gift. Hitler, furious over his pudgy fellow Nazi's effort to go over his head, had his aides give him a detailed account of the matter five days later, and then cancelled everything.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...