Nefertiti: Sparring Over Berlin's 'Mona Lisa'

"A nation can have true scholars and an utterly corrupt soul; the evidence has been brought forward," Lacau wrote in 1919, in response to a Danish scholar who had sought to involve German colleagues in a major book project. He resumed his battle for the Nefertiti bust in the 1920s, when he wrote: "From a legal standpoint, I believe that we are defenseless." But he was also convinced that he was on the right side of the moral argument.

Hitler was Lacau's Last Hope

Lacau was director general of the Department of Antiquities in Cairo until 1936. He became somewhat more diplomatic over time, but he remained as persistent as ever, characterizing the Nefertiti saga as a mistake that had to be corrected. He tried his luck with offers to exchange other treasures for the bust, and he even traveled to Berlin. For a brief moment in 1930, it even seemed as if the Germans were on the verge of agreeing to his proposal to give them two valuable male statues in return for the Nefertiti, but then they withdrew from the deal.

Ironically, Adolf Hitler became Lacau's last hope. The German Foreign Ministry had in fact promised to return the bust on Oct. 9, 1933, but then Hitler decided not to honor the agreement. During a visit to Berlin, the German ambassador to Egypt failed to convince the Fuehrer to change his mind. Instead, Hitler said: "I'm going to build a new Egyptian museum in Berlin ... In the middle, this wonder, Nefertiti, will be enthroned."

During World War II, the Nefertiti bust was first kept in the cellar of a bank, then in a bunker at the Berlin Zoo and, finally, in a salt mine in the eastern state of Thuringia. After the war, US soldiers kept it in storage in Wiesbaden in western Germany and, in 1956, handed it over to the West Berlin museums, to the chagrin of the East German cultural officials, who wanted it returned to Museum Island in what was then East Berlin.

Lacau had already left Egypt, the country he so despised, at the beginning of World War II. He said that Egypt had destroyed him as a scholar. His successor was also a Frenchman, and it wasn't until the 1950s that the Egyptians assumed control of their antiquities administration. By that time, the country's archeological sites had been largely plundered of any remaining treasures.

For Bernd Neumann, Germany's minister of state for culture, the Egyptian claims for restitution are completely unfounded. Neither the campaign of former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Hawass nor the revolution of the past few months has done anything to change his position. Nefertiti, Naumann likes to say, is "the most beautiful ambassador of Egyptian art and culture in Germany." Morally speaking, it's a deeply cynical argument.

*Bénédicte Savoy: Nofretete. Eine deutsch-französische Affäre 1912-1931 (Nefertitit. A German-French Affair 1912-1931), Böhlau Verlag, Cologne 232 pages, €24.90.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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