Nefertiti: Sparring Over Berlin's 'Mona Lisa'

Germany and Egypt have long been at odds over the return of the famous bust of Nefertiti. Now documents found in archives show that the conflict was started by a Frenchman who had fought the Germans in World War I and considered them to be swindlers. He may have been right.

This queen owes her immortality to a gifted artist. The bust he fashioned out of gypsum and limestone some 3,350 years ago became an eternal monument to her beauty. As realistic as the image is, it has the radiance of a goddess. "It's no use describing it; you have to see it!" said the German archeologist who unearthed the bust of the Egyptian queen in the desert sand almost a century ago.

Hardly anyone is familiar with the name of the sculptor, Thutmose, but the bust is of the famous Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile, Great Royal Wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. And thanks to a coincidence, a minor detour of history, her likeness is not on display in a museum in her native Egypt, but in Berlin. Or was it not a coincidence at all, but rather fraud?

For the Germans, Nefertiti is their perceived property, a national cultural treasure, their entry in the canon of the sublime. The bust represents many things, but most of all it stands for both the splendid epoch of ancient Egypt and the age of spectacular digs around the beginning of the last century, when Europe's archeologists set out for the Nile. Today, she is the star of the Neues Museum in Berlin's Mitte district, which was reopened in 2009. There, the bust is prominently displayed in the middle of a domed hall, bathed in soft light and admired by thousands every day. Of the more than 1 million visitors the museum attracts each year, most come to see the bust of Nefertiti, as if they were making a pilgrimage to admire this queen of the Nile. Nefertiti is Berlin's Mona Lisa, except that she is perhaps even more beautiful, more mysterious and more magnificent.

Fight Over the Queen is Far From Over

Of course, the Egyptians would prefer to have this heirloom of their magnificent history in their own country. Egyptian experts on antiquity have repeatedly asked that the bust of the queen be repatriated, especially in recent years. And although the government in Cairo has not intervened in the dispute, it seemed to have no objection when Zahi Hawass, the country's former minister of state for antiquities, demanded the return of the bust. Hawass is quick to point out that even the Nazis were once almost persuaded to send Nefertiti back to Egypt.

During his time in office, the relentless Hawass managed to bring a few relics of antiquity back to Egypt, but not the bust of Nefertiti. Then came the revolution and Hawass lost his position. But the fight over the queen is far from over, just as the fight over all the other antiquities from Egypt that were once distributed around the world continues today.

The National Museums in Berlin, as well as the German Foreign Ministry, ward off all claims with the argument that everything was done properly during the excavation in December 1912. But what exactly was considered proper in those days?

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.

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.

"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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