Why is Queen Nefertiti’s Bust in Berlin, and not Egypt?

Last weekend, I visited The Egyptian Queen Nefertiti this weekend on a trip to Berlin’s Neues Museum. “New” being a museum built in the mid-nineteenth century, bombed during World War II, and finally re-opened in 2009 after reconstruction following German Reunification.

The bust of Nefertiti is the Neues Museum’s best-known artifact. The Nefertiti statue is of Egypt’s Queen during the period of approximately 1370 BC-1330 BC. The statue is known for the skill that the sculptor Thutmose put into it, the well-preserved coloration, and the beauty of Nefertiti herself.

The bust remained buried until discovery by German archaeologists in 1912 when they excavated the Thutmose’s workshop. The German team was digging under license at the time from the government of Egypt, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which in Egypt at the time was dominated by the British. (But the antiquities department was at that time under the French as a result of the strong interest in Antiquities established there under the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte who had occupied Egypt 100 years earlier.)

If that last paragraph makes immediate sense to you—pat yourself on the back! The point of the paragraph is to point out that the Nefertiti statue was obtained under some version of legal/extra-legal/colonial license at a time when it seemed that every European power had its finger in the Egyptian pie at a time when Antiquities were attracted quite strong interest in Europe. Anyway the statue made its way to Berlin by 1913, where it was eventually put on display at the New Museum.

So the Nefertiti statue was brought to Berlin just before the World Wars. Berlin itself of course became the center of German militarism first in World War I, and later in World War II. Much of Germany’s antiquities were removed by the Nazi government during the war (1939-1945), and much of what was left behind was shipped to the Soviet Union as the spoils of war in 1945-1946. The Nefertiti statue itself was discovered by the occupying American forces in a salt mine, and put on display in West Berlin where they ruled. The Soviets who occupied East Berlin where the Neues Museum and Museum Island is found of course objected—but by then Nefertiti was another pawn in Cold War rivalries. Not until the final restoration of the New Museum in 2009, was the statue returned to the Neues Museum, 70 years after it had left. And that of course is where I saw it last weekend.

In the process of this history, the Nefertiti bust has become an important symbol for Berlin. The sculpture is of course well-preserved, and the Germans do this because they believe that such ancient artwork should be held in trust for all of humanity.

 

But of course here is were the disagreement starts. The modern Egyptian government regards the 1912 as looting, and has requested the statue be returned to Egypt for display there. Egypt never allows antiquities to leave the country (which is why much of King Tutankhamen’s treasure is still in Egypt).

 

And so Nefertiti remains in Berlin at least for the time being, and international treasure, rather than an Egyptian national treasure. This is contested of course, as many museums around the world have found out. How responsible are they for the conditions under which their trophy pieces are obtain decades, or even a century ago?

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