Nefertiti bust on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

(Markus Schreiber / AP)

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Germany: Time for Egypt’s Nefertiti bust to go home?

A German museum has a bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti as its centerpiece. But should Germany and other Western nations keep or return Egypt's cultural artifacts?

By Isabelle de Pommereau | Correspondent 11.02.09

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

BERLIN – Queen Nefertiti, who lived 3,500 years ago, was a wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten. In 1912, German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt found her on the banks of the River Nile – her bust that is, made of stucco and lime. Her new home became Berlin’s Neues Museum. But World War II annihilated the museum and the German Democratic Republic’s communist government let it decay.

This past October, seven decades later, Queen Nefertiti found her home again, as the centerpiece of a new, €200 million (about US$300 million) restored Neues Museum.

The reopening marked Germany’s ability to overcome the scars of war. It also sparked a dispute between Egypt and Germany over who really owns the Nefertiti bust. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, said he would investigate whether it had come to Germany legally. If not, he said he would demand the bust be returned to Egypt.

Nefertiti is among an increasing number of ancient Egyptian relics Mr. Hawass is trying to get back to Egypt. Others include the Rosetta Stone (which helped unlock the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics) from the British Museum in London; the Dendera Zodiac from the Louvre in Paris; and a bust of pyramid builder Ankhaf from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

“It is the Egyptian people’s right to see works of art from their country’s civilization,” Abdel Halim Nureddin, a former head of Egypt’s antiquities authority, told the Egypt Daily News. Many relics were acquired during British colonial rule.

The Nefertiti controversy is fueling a growing worldwide debate over ownership and cultural property, as countries from Italy to Egypt and Greece are reclaiming antiquities they say were illegally taken.

France this year agreed to return a set of 3,000-year-old Egyptian wall painting fragments it conceded were stolen in the 1980s before ending up at the Louvre in 2000 and 2003.

And when Greece reopened its new $177 million Acropolis Museum at the foot of the Acropolis in June, it made another request to Britain to return the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures that were taken off the temple by Lord Elgin in the 1800s. At stake is national and cultural pride.

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1. Chris | 11.02.09

Is Egypt willing to give back all the gold and other goods it plundered during its rule? How about compensation to families of Hebrew slaves?…….

2. Dorothy Tinkham Delo | 11.02.09

I’m retired. I’ve heard this nonsense all my life and am tired of these continuing demands. Countries didn’t value and didn’t care for their own antiquities. People who did value them saved them. I do NOT believe a country who allowed and encouraged the looting of tombs or a country who took building blocks from ancient buildings and reused them can turn around a few hundred years later and “demand” the “return” of “treasures”. If the items had been “treasured”, they wouldn’t have had to have been rescued or saved by others. I think Greece and Egypt should save all the other “treasures” in their countries before stealing things from people who took care of them when they didn’t give a hoot. Enough .

3. Laborec | 11.03.09

It surprises me that Egypt recognizes his history.
If they want to do so let them be consequent and why don’t they treat their Copt minority (descendants of the historic Egyptians) better ?

4. Christopher | 11.03.09

Who is the rightful heir for these kinds of cultural artifacts? That’s not a simple question, but I can’t buy the argument that people living in modern Egypt have a special claim to them. Clearly governments can and should regulate excavation and handling of artifacts, including whether they can be removed from country - looting is looting. That’s not what I’m talking about. The fact is that ancient Egypt’s cultural legacy extends way beyond the borders of modern Egypt, having profoundly affected all of the societies around the Mediterranean. A student in New York or Berlin needs access to these kinds of artifacts to understand, viscerally, the roots of western civilization every bit as much as a modern Egyptian does to understand the history of his or her own country. The land around the Nile has been conquered and reconquered by different peoples many times over, and the cultural connection between modern Egypt and the ancient kingdoms is through the common tap root shared by the western and middle-eastern world. It does everyone a disservice to behave otherwise, and to treat these treasures like local curiosities.

5. Numbers | 11.03.09

There should be an international body to determine these kind of disputes. England too has a large number of cultural artifacts brought from India and Sri Lanka. My personal belief is Irrespective of circumstances these should be returned to those cultures. After all we are now living in a more civilized era.

6. SKV | 11.03.09

I don’t see why nations that has happen to resides on top of ruins ancient civilizations should claim back “treasure”.
In most cases local rulers gave away artifacts to european explorers/colonists in exchange for money/favors. It is great that 3rd world finally rediscover the Law and Writing. But it doesn’t make them entitle to artifacts that have little to do with their culture. Most artifacts were saved from certain detraction.

Queen Nefertitiis is Egypt Queen. She has nothing to do with Arabs. Strictly speaking As Muslim country, Egypt cannot even posses any art that resembles human body ;). I never heart that modern Egypt preempts ancient Egypt kingdoms.

7. Amanda M | 11.03.09

Notice that none of these countries seem to give a hoot about the less-famous works. These are one and all ploys to increase revenue with the cultural arguments as nothing but window dressing. I agree with Dorothy in post 2 and Christopher in 4; why should we trust nations that backslid into near barbarism with the finest artifacts from what is not only their heritage, but our own?

8. Elizabeth Tang | 11.03.09

Ordinarily I would not believe the story that a valuable antiquity was simply found on a river bank; but due to this Pharaoh’s extreme unpopularity, that may very well be true. Because of the following, I see no need to return this bust to Egypt:

Pharaoh Akhenaton had come to believe in one supreme being instead of many gods, and wanted his belief adopted by all in his kingdom. When he decided to completely abolish the worship of their other gods, this did not sit well with the priests nor the populace. Because of this, the people of Akhenaton’s time referred to him as “The criminal of Akhenaton,” and did not honor him in his life or afterlife.

9. Kathryn Parenti | 11.04.09

I think that part of the solution to this question may come from cultures reclaiming their heritage works of art (rightfully, in my opinion)and then allowing the cross-cultural lending of these works for study and display in order to inform and encourage appreciation of these artifacts. To remove a piece permanently from its cultural heritage is to remove it from its context and as a result diminish the understanding of its importance and relevance in the development of that culture, and the impact of its meaning in a holistic sense.

10. peter hancock | 11.05.09

The most obvious example of the question : whether to return major works of art/sculpture to their countries of origin applies to the Parthenon sculptures, acquired by Lord Elgin, from the Parthenon, in Athens, at the time of the Ottoman empire, to which he was the British ambassador.

The Greek government has tried in vain for over a 100 years to have these superb 5th century BC sculptures returned to Athens. The British Museum, which currently has title to the sculptures, in terms of an Act of the British parliament, has consistently stated that it will not return the sculptures, as this is precluded by an Act of Parliament.

The Greek government has built a New Acropolis Museum to house these unique, non-pareil artefacts, together with other ancient artefacts. My own view is, that whilst in principle I am in favour of the Parthenon sculptures being returned to Athens, these sculptural masterpieces merit their own NEW PARTHENON MUSEUM, specifically and exclusively designed to accommodate these sculptures, and which is expressive of Greek culture, past and present.


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