How Nefertiti's bust ended up in Germany
By the turn of the 20th century the days when a non-Egyptian archaeologist could arrive at an archaeological site in Egypt, dig it up and take his finds home to dispose of as he wished, had long gone.
While Egypt was a British protectorate, veiled from 1882-1914 then de facto from 1914-56, the French-run Antiquities Service protected Egypt's heritage.
No archaeological mission could excavate or export antiquities without their permission.
As we might expect, relationships between the foreign excavators and the French officials were not always as cordial as they could have been, and many of the excavators regarded the Antiquities Service – which they considered to be French rather than Egyptian – as acting in direct conflict to the interests of Egyptology.
In 1907 the eminent Egyptologist Gaston Maspero was both director of the Antiquities Service and head of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
He awarded the concession to dig at Amarna to the German entrepreneur and philanthropist James Simon – a man who, thanks to his co-ownership of the largest cotton wholesale firm in Europe, could count himself one of the 10 richest in Prussia.
Simon shared his good fortune generously, allocating up to a third of his personal income to building public baths and homes for disadvantaged children, financing concerts and public lectures, stocking Berlin's newly opened national gallery and eventually, in 1898, founding the German Oriental Society (Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft, or DoG).
His philanthropy led to his inclusion in the regular "gentlemen's evenings" held by Kaiser Wilhelm II. They developed a friendship despite the fact that Simon was Jewish while the Kaiser was prone to anti-Semitism.
Simon, who was the treasurer of the DoG, funded the Amarna excavations with lavish donations from his own pocket.
Simon would not personally excavate at Amarna; the work was to be done by a team of archaeologists from the DoG, supervised by Ludwig Borchardt.
The beautiful woman arrives
Work at Amarna started with a survey of the city, and the cutting of an exploratory series of trenches that would indicate where the richest archaeological rewards lay hidden.
This investigative phase was followed by excavation proper.
On 6 December 1912 they found a collection of stone and plaster pieces. Borchardt was on site that day, and able to observe the excavation in progress.
Borchardt's excavation diary gives a concise description of the colourful queen and includes a small sketch of the bust:
"Life-sized painted bust of the queen, 47cm high. With the blue wig cut straight on top, and garlanded by a ribbon half-way up. Colours look freshly painted. Really wonderful work. No use describing it, you have to see it."
A preliminary report and photographs were sent to Berlin, where they greatly excited the directors of the DoG.
It was hoped that the bust would be allowed to travel to Germany, but this would be entirely dependent on the goodwill of the Antiquities Service.
In 1912 all non-Egyptian holders of excavation licences were entitled to a share of each season's finds.
This division, or partage, was designed to protect Egypt's heritage by ensuring that no unique items and no items of great archaeological or commercial value left Egypt, while allowing those who financed excavations a tangible reward for their generosity.
Today the division of finds is generally seen as a bad thing: it breaks up groups of interrelated artefacts, turns a scientific excavation into a treasure hunt and encourages excavators to discard what they may perceive as insignificant discoveries in order to ensure that their share of finds is not entirely comprised of broken potsherds.
A century ago, opinions were very different.
Western archaeologists regarded their digs as a legitimate means of exploring mysteries of the past, which brought employment to some of the poorest areas of Egypt while stimulating the tourism that brought money to the country as a whole. But with little or no institutional funding available, all archaeological missions were dependent on sponsors, and those sponsors liked to be rewarded for their generosity.
Dividing up the treasure
As the new law demanded, the Amarna finds were split into two lists. .
Gustave Lefebvre, the Antiquities inspector for Middle Egypt, reached Amarna at noon and the division started with the inspector examining photographs of the finds.
He was then given access to both the excavation records and the finds themselves. Lefebvre made the most cursory of inspections. As Borchardt later confided to the art critic Julius Meier-Graefe, "the gents in Cairo were just too slack to look in the box".
As Lefebvre did not claim the list headed by the bust, and declined to exercise his right of pre-emption to transfer it to his own share, ownership of the bust fell to Simon as the holder of the Amarna concession.
On 5 February Borchardt wrote to Heinrich Schäfer at the Neues Museum in Berlin, informing him that the bust would soon be on its way:
"Today H.M. [Her Majesty] shall leave my house where she was accommodated since Sunday. Thus you will see her soon after this letter turns up. I hope you enjoy it. I shall be calm only when I receive the telegram about her arrival."
On 7 July 1920 Simon donated his entire Amarna collection to the museum, transferring ownership of the artefacts to the state of Prussia.
In 1957 with the state of Prussia dissolved, title to all cultural assets owned prior to 1945 was transferred to the newly created Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or SPk).
Today the SPk, Germany's largest cultural institution, is conscious that there are legal and ethical questions over the ownership of many of the pieces in its collections and is working with countries of origin with the aim of preserving "a shared heritage". This includes working with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture on the creation of an Akhenaten Museum in Minya, Middle Egypt, which will display the most recent finds from the site. Currently, the SPk remains the legal owner of the Nefertiti bust.
This is an edited extract from Nefertiti's Face by Joyce Tyldesley, published by Profile. RRP $39.99
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