Egypt has hinted at an official demand for the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Germany this week. The demand comes as Germany opens the rebuilt Neues Museum, reinstalling the limestone and stucco bust there. Zahi Hawass has told German media outlets that “[i]f she left Egypt illegally, which I am convinced she did, then I will officially demand it back from Germany”. These comments come after Culture Minister Faruq Hosni of Egypt failed to gain election as the new director general of UNESCO, and Egypt threatened France with a cultural boycott to secure the return of recently-purchased frescoes from the Louvre. There are no indications Egypt will make a similar threat with this case, though perhaps if evidence comes to light indicating some wrongdoing, Egypt may attempt this aggressive strategy again.
The bust has been in Germany since 1913. A German archaeological expedition digging near Amarna found what may have been the house and studio complex of the sculptor Thutmose in 1912. The bust of Nefertiti was found on the floor of a storeroom along with other plaster casts. The removal of the busts does not appear to be an illegal smuggling or criminal in the same way the frescoes returned from the Louvre were. This dispute then will share some characteristics with the dispute between Yale and Peru over artifacts from Macchu Picchu.
In a piece in the New York Times, Monika Grütters, an “art history professor, legislator and a leading cultural expert” in Germany is quoted arguing:
“The documentation exists. The arrangements were agreed. The process was legal . . . There was a complete understanding about what would remain in Egypt and what would be taken to Germany . . . Maybe there is a bit of jealousy on the part of Egypt over Nefertiti. In any event, I am not so sure Egypt has the best conditions for this statue . . . And because it is so fragile, I am not sure the statue can even be flown. We have excellent conditions here in Germany.
There are indications the Egyptians may have been misled during the initial meeting over the partage of many of the objects which were recovered from the Thutmose workshop in 1912. Are these issues which can be litigated today? Perhaps not, as the limitations periods may have expired. But in the court of public opinion, more evidence of German misrepresentation might compel some action or calls for return.
Judy Dempsey, Egypt Demands Return of Nefertiti Statue, The New York Times, October 19, 2009.