“Nefertiti wants to go home”

The bust of Queen Nefertiti is without doubt one of the most fascinating artefacts from Egypt’s Pharaonic period. Discovered with many other objects by German archaeologists in 1912, its display in Berlin just as Europe’s biggest exhibition of modern art was under way provoked a storm. The extraordinary parallel between works of art three thousand years apart prompted a burning question: who really owns objects seized from countries under foreign domination?

Agence Rol, “Head of the statue of Queen Nefertiti”, 1923
Bibliothèque nationale de France - gallica.bnf.fr

Like every pupil in Cairo educated in a French lycée, I admired the bust of Queen Nefertiti in the sixth-form history books dedicated to Pharaonic history – a period which at that time was compulsory, not optional like today. I also discovered the statues of her husband Amenophis IV, better known as Akhenaton, the promoter of the cult of a single god: Aton, the Sun God.

Like every Cairo schoolboy, I felt frustration at being deprived of these treasures by a German expedition which had taken them off to Berlin on the eve of the First World War. One of the postage stamps in my collection, printed on 15 October 1956 (see below), displayed the portrait of the Queen, to assert her Egyptian identity. Not entirely coincidentally, the next stamp in the series, from December 1956, celebrated the resistance of the people of Port Said to the Israeli-Anglo-French invasion which followed the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company.

Adding to my fascination with this subject, I was thrilled by the episodes in the comic Tintin (from E. P. Jacobs’s Mystery of the Great Pyramid) recounting the adventures of Professor Blake and his sidekick Mortimer as they sought the hidden tomb (and treasure) of Akhenaton, secretly buried by his devotees to avoid the desecration of his mummy decreed by his young son Tutankhamun and his successors, under pressure from the priests of Amon who had decided to destroy every bas-relief, smash every statue and forbid any expression of his father’s heresy.

The bust of Nefertiti sent to Berlin in 1913 is still there now, having survived the upheavals of two world wars, often displayed, sometimes hidden. Its story is full of lessons, not only about the fate of antiquities archaeologists have removed – some would say stolen – from the countries they were exploring, but also about the earthquake these artefacts could sometimes cause, centuries later and thousands of miles distant.

Who do works of art belong to?

I rediscovered this story listening to courses given at the Collège de France by Bénédicte Savoy, professor of art history at the Technical University of Berlin, on the theme of ‘Who does beauty belong to?’1 Her teaching deals with the fabulous saga of artefacts and paintings displaced by the vagaries of history, from the bronze rabbit and rat heads stolen in the looting of the Summer Palace in Peking in 1860 to the royal throne of Bamoun (Cameroon), a gift to Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1908, and the bust of Nefertiti. There are burning questions about the ownership of these works – not all of which come from former colonies, such as the famous L’Enseigne de Gersaint painted by Antoine Watteau in the 18th century, which is kept in Berlin. The decision by Germany and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to return the Benin Bronzes, looted by British soldiers in 1897, to Nigeria was widely acclaimed until it emerged that the country’s president had decided to give them, not to the central government, but to the direct descendant of the monarch from whom they had been stolen2.

But back to 1912 and Nefertiti and Akhenaton: a German archaeological expedition headed by Ludwig Borchardt had for the past year been digging the site of Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt. It was here that the short-lived capital built in honour of the god Aton was located, later displaced by Thebes where Amon was worshipped. At that time, Egypt was occupied by the British, but France, heir to Napoleon’s expedition, had secured a monopoly of responsibility for everything ‘under the ground’ – the antiquities from thousands of years of civilisation buried in the sand. The Egyptian Antiquities Service was at the time directed by a Frenchman, Gaston Maspero, who unilaterally decided the allocation of digging permits and the ‘distribution’ of discoveries – in principle, half should remain in Egypt and the rest fall to the expedition which found them.

At the beginning of the 20th century, worried by the major ‘above ground’ works undertaken by the British – the construction of dams, irrigation systems, etc. – which threaten to flood (and thus destroy) things ‘under the ground’, Maspero was freely dishing out permits to dig and export. He writes: ‘The reforms to the irrigation system introduced over the past 20 years have brought under cultivation vast tracts which had been arid for centuries, soaking the objects which were buried there.’3 And he called for a ‘mass movement of the knowledgeable.’ So one had to be generous with them, on condition that the digs were carried out in the name of academies, universities or foreign governments – which, of course, excluded the Egyptians, who had neither independence nor ‘modern’ universities with Egyptology departments.

Storm over Berlin

What Borchardt discovered in early December 1912 was the studio of the sculptor Thutmose, complete with statues, sculptures, sketches and all the accoutrements of a hitherto unknown art which would become known as Amarnian art, after Tell el-Amarna. If at the time, Savoy wrote, people were already fascinated by ‘Akhenaton’s radical monotheism, the closeness of his religious language to that of the Old Testament, and more generally the astonishing kinship between ancient Egypt and the biblical world,’ they knew little about this art, which at best they deemed ‘grotesque,’ ‘cartoonish,’ and ‘ridiculous,’ so far was it removed from the representations associated with Pharaonic Egypt. Among the pieces discovered, one was destined for world fame: the multicoloured bust, in limestone and stuccoed plaster, of Queen Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaton.

Borchardt obtained the right to export his discoveries to Germany. He managed to get the bust through surreptitiously without really declaring it. On 5 November 1913, in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, a special exhibition opened, dedicated to Amarna, with all the pieces from the site – except the bust of Nefertiti: the archaeologist was afraid that Paris might discover he had not been transparent in his declarations.

In the same year, on 20 September 1913, the vibrant German capital, the very centre of the European world, of modernism, feminism, the workers’ movement, and the tango, whose hot nights welcomed well-heeled tourists from around the continent, was host to a big exhibition of contemporary art, Der Sturm (The Storm), reflecting the maelstrom stirred by Cubism, Expressionism and Futurism, from Max Ernst to Paul Klee, and from Marc Chagall to Francis Picabia.

‘Then something happened that was quite unprecedented in the history of Egyptology and of the collective appropriation of foreign cultures by the West,’ explained Savoy. ‘It was not the international scientific community that was first to appreciate the sensational importance of the pieces exhibited, but a quite disparate public of wild enthusiasts. That Borchardt had succeeded in holding back the coloured bust of Nefertiti made no difference: the Berlin public was electrified by the art of Amarna.’

This collision of two civilisations separated by 3000 years and thousands of miles captivated the public, fascinated by the parallels between the world of yesterday and that of today, between the busts of Akhenaton and avant-garde sculpture. One German critic went so far as to salute Thutmose as ‘the greatest artist who ever existed, more contemporary than all of us, stronger than the Expressionists.’

Rilke or Akhenaton?

Another young critic, Adolf Behne, writing in the Dresdener Neueste Nachrichten, published an analysis summing up the earthquake in Germany. ‘Now we must add a new name to the list of the most glorious in the history of art: that of the sculptor Thutmose. This time, it is not a modernist, a young person bent on turning everything upside down, that I want to bring to the height of honour … This Thutmose appears before us with an immediacy that is almost frightening…

‘The first and strongest impression one feels before his works is astonishment: is what we have in front of us really still Egyptian? Quite apart from the surprising parallels with contemporary art, obvious at every turn, there are heads that instinctively one would think came from a totally different environment: Gothic funerary works. There are other heads which reflect such realism that in truth one thinks of Rodin or [Belgian sculptor Constantin] Meunier more than the Egypt of Amenophis IV!’ Les Cahiers socialistes refers to those heads which so resemble ‘us’ and in which all the workers can recognise themselves.

The works were to draw comment from many writers, such as Thomas Mann, who saw in Akhenaton the incarnation of the fin de siècle dandy. The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin’s former secretary, celebrated him in his poems; his friend, the German-Russian woman of letters Lou Andreas Salomé, wrote to him: ‘You have no doubt noticed the fact that you look like’ these busts?

Then war broke out, swallowing up a whole era along with three centuries-old empires, the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman and Tsarist Russia. The man who followed Maspero in Cairo, Pierre Lacau, was called up and spent nearly two years near Verdun retrieving corpses, leaving him with a ferocious hatred for the Germans. Back in Cairo, he had a single obsession: to stop them coming back to resume digging at Tell el-Amarna, and to bring about the return of the artefacts found there, notably the bust of Nefertiti. He admitted that their export was legal and that ‘we have no legal ammunition,’ but nonetheless declared that ‘we have a moral case’. Which is not totally wrong because the exportations were carried out concealing the true value of the works. As he himself wrote, Borchardt had deliberately misled the Egyptology Service by showing a photo ‘which did not do justice to the full beauty of the bust.’4 As an indirect consequence of this debate, Lacau was to oppose the export of the treasures of Tutankhamun after Howard Carter discovered his tomb in 1922.

The debate gradually shifted after Egypt attained independence in 1922. Now it was the government in Cairo which tried to bring Nefertiti back. Keen to improve relations with the Arab world, Germany under the Weimar Republic concluded an agreement to that effect with Egypt. But Hitler reneged on these commitments. After spending the Second World War in shelters, the artefacts of Tell el-Amarna went on show at the Neues Museum of Berlin.

Since then, the argument over restitutions has broken out on a regular basis, part of a wider debate going on for decades. At the beginning of the 2000s, Germany printed a stamp with the stylised effigy of Nefertiti mentioning Berlin, as though to signal the appropriation of this treasure by many Germans following the shock of 1913 – an appropriation rejected by one part of society, which declared, in the words of the title of a recent book, ‘Nefertiti wants to go home.’

1« À qui appartient la beauté ? Arts et cultures du monde dans nos musées », Collège de France.

2Axel Marshall, ‘Who Owns the Benin Bronzes? The Answer Just Got More Complicated’, The New York Times, 5 June 2023.

3Bénédicte Savoy, Néfertiti and co. à Berlin, 1913-1925, Ausonius editions, 2015. Unless otherwise indicated, the quotations are taken from this text or from her conference at the Collège de France, 26 April 2017.

4Stephanie Pearson, ‘Buste de Néfertiti à Berlin’, Berlin Poche website.