Nefertiti: Sparring Over Berlin's 'Mona Lisa'

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.

"A Very Pleasant Diversion from the Desert"

Savoy now suggests that the idea of the restitution of Nefertiti was pursued with dogged determination early on. In fact, a Frenchman, Pierre Lacau, once made it his mission in life. He hated the Germans, after having fought against them in World War I. The sheer depth of his hatred and the extent to which his anti-German sentiments played a role in the treatment of the Nefertiti bust were largely unknown until now. Curiously enough, Lacau also seemed to be disgusted with Egypt, as the tone of revulsion he used in referring to the country reveals. Even the trenches in the snow-covered battlefields of World War I were, in his words, "a very pleasant diversion from the desert."

He delayed taking up his post as chief of antiquities in Cairo, preferring to remain on the front in Europe instead. In 1915, the French government ordered Lacau to go to Egypt, but he would have preferred to carve out a career at home in France, preferably at the Louvre in Paris.

Because he was denied that opportunity, Lacau focused his ambitions on trying to prove that the Germans had committed a serious "moral mistake" when they took the Nefertiti bust to Berlin. Essentially, he felt that the Germans had committed fraud, and this accusation continues to color the controversy over who should own the Nefertiti to this day. Lacau also characterized the restitution as a moral issue, and he may have been right.

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