Nefertiti: Sparring Over Berlin's 'Mona Lisa'

Savoy, an expert on early thefts of cultural artefacts, makes it clear that a global renegotiation of the handling of archeological treasures is necessary. In her view, every Egyptian museum that is not located in Egypt should ask itself whether it even has the right to exist. Savoy refers to the question of the whereabouts and possible restitution of treasures looted in colonial times as one of the "great challenges of the future."

Priceless and Irreplaceable Treasures

Already precious at the time, these treasures are now priceless and irreplaceable. From a Western perspective, it is hard to imagine them being removed from the museum collections where they are now held.

German archeologist Ludwig Borchardt unearthed the Nefertiti bust at the Amarna archeological site 99 years ago. Referring to the find, he noted: "Colors as if just applied. Work is outstanding." The piece was still dubbed simply "colored bust of a princess," but Borchardt recognized its uniqueness immediately.

Although Lacau was not in office yet at the time, he later accused Borchardt of having concealed the splendor of the sculpture and created the impression that it was less important than another piece from the same dig, an altar that subsequently remained in Egypt.

The new practice was known as the sharing of finds. From a later perspective, it was disquieting, because it meant that many ensembles were separated. But different priorities applied in the colonial era. The archeologist, who had invested the money for the dig, was to be permitted to keep half of the pieces he found or be compensated for half of their value, while the Egyptians kept the other half.

But in most cases it was the foreign treasure hunters who benefited from this arrangement, because they downplayed the material value and significance of important pieces so that they could get them out of the country.

Borchardt was as cunning as the rest. He wrote that anyone who still hoped to derive anything worthwhile from the digs ought to apply the "London system of deep cellars." His words made it sound as if many a find had simply been covered up.

At the time, even Borchardt admitted: "By far the overwhelming portion fell into our laps." That included the Nefertiti bust, but apparently he was anxious to keep his success a secret, so that only a few people would see this exceptional work. When the finds from Amarna were exhibited in Wilhelmine Berlin in 1913, the Nefertiti bust was not included. It was only shown to Kaiser Wilhelm.

Love at First Sight for Berliners

The bust found a home as a private trophy on the mantelpiece of James Simon, a Berlin businessman who had paid for the excavations. In 1920, he donated it to the Egyptian Museum in the German capital, but it wasn't exhibited until four years later. For Berliners, it was love at first sight.

But for Pierre Lacau, the French head of the Egyptian antiquities administration, it was yet another reason to cling to his hatred for the Germans, to whom he and other Frenchmen referred to as the boche, a derogatory term used after the end of the war. At his insistence, the magnificent "German House" in Luxor, which the German archeologists had used as their base, was dynamited by the British in 1915. After that, Lacau tried to keep the Germans away from Egyptian digs for as long as possible, again citing "moral reasons." Borchardt was never permitted to dig at Egyptian sites again.

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