The Nefertiti Summit Has Come and Gone

   Posted by: Keith Payne   

Categories: Egypt in the News

neferstamp-tabThe Nefertiti Summit has passed by, leaving little more in its wake than a flurry of media reports which all say basically the same thing, summarized here for your convenience. 

The short version:  Egypt offered no new evidence, but Germany was kind enough to offer some old evidence that seems to favor Egypt, who now feels justified in officially demanding the return of the bust of Nefertiti.

For the long version…

On Sunday, December 20, 2009, Dr. Zahi Hawass met with Dr. Friederike Seyfried, Director of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, to discuss the evidence related to the removal of the bust of Nefertiti from Egypt in the early days of the Twentieth Century.  Egypt maintains that Ludwig Borchardt, the German archaeologist who discovered the bust, used “unethical tactics” to secure her for Germany.  The position of the Germans has always been that the artifact was acquired legally and through proper channels.

The debate hinges on whether or not the bust could be considered a unique artifact, and if so, did Borchardt know and try to conceal this fact to acquire the bust for Germany.  According to the rules under which Borchardt was operating, objects sans pareil (without equal, or unique) became part of the Egyptian national collection and Germany was entitled to half of what remained.   In hindsight, the bust of Nefertiti is clearly a unique artifact, but did Borchardt know this at the time, and did he purposely misrepresent the value of the bust in order to keep it?

Back in August, 2009, Dr. Hawass stated that he was compiling evidence that Borchardt had indeed acted unethically and that he would reveal this evidence when he made a formal request to Berlin to return the bust.  But it would seem that the only evidence offered at the December meeting between Hawass and Seyfried was presented by the Germans. 

In particular, Dr. Seyfried presented the original protocol agreed to by Gustave Lefevre of the Egyptian Antiquities Services, which was under French directorship at the time.  The protocol details how the artifacts discovered by Borchardt were to be divided between Egypt and Germany.  Dr. Seyfried also presented Borchardt’s diary, which seems to be the smoking gun. 

The protocol describes the bust of Nefertiti as simply a “painted plaster bust of a princess.”  But according to a press release issued from Dr. Hawass’ website, Borchardt’s diary indicates that he knew the artifact was actually made of limestone covered with plaster, and the he knew it depicted the famous queen herself.  Says Dr. Hawass:

It seems that there was an agreement between Borchardt and Lefevre that all the plaster pieces (which included an important group of plaster masks of the royal family at Amarna) would go to Berlin, and this appears to have been one way that Borchardt misled Lefevre to ensure that the bust would also go to Berlin.  (Source:  Press Release -Meeting with Berlin Museum Director)

There has been no official response from the Germans as of yet, but judging from previous statements it would seem that they feel the evidence presented can be interpreted in more than one way.  In a statement made on December 18, 2009, wherein German officials denied that the Nefertiti Summit was intended to negotiate the terms of their surrender of the bust, it was pointed out that the artifact was photographed and presented in a way that was anything but deceptive.  “The cases stood open for appraisal,” the statement concludes.   “There can be no talk of deception” (Source:  Haaretz:  “Egypt to demand Germany return bust of Queen Nefertiti”).

But where does the bust’s safety factor into the equation?  Germany has contended for years that regardless of how the bust came to Berlin, it is too fragile now to risk transportation.  Without having the artifact appraised for just that purpose it is impossible to know if this is a genuine consideration or an attempt to keep her in Berlin. 

And who will do the appraisal?  Egypt has a standing demand for the return of artifacts from the British (the Rosetta Stone) and the U.S. (the bust of Ankhaf and the mask of Ka Nefer Nefer), just to name a few.  If experts from any country currently in possession of a disputed artifact decide against the bust of Nefertiti being moved, will that invite a cry of bias from Egypt?

It does seem from Borchardt’s own journal that he knew he was spiriting something away from Egypt that Germany probably had no right to.  But if the bust of Nefertiti is unfit for transport then a shift from talks of repatriation to talks of reparation may be the only solution to this century-old custody battle.


Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009.  All rights reserved.

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This entry was posted on Monday, December 21st, 2009 at 5:56 pm and is filed under Egypt in the News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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