09 May 2009

The Nefertiti Bust: Art Nouveau Ripoff?

LinkOn the heels of the Ebay report, Al-Arabiya reports (via AFP) fresh controversy over the authenticity of a famous artifact. This time, it is the famous bust of Nefertiti:
Housed in a Berlin museum, the iconic bust is one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt but its legitimacy has been put into question by Swiss art historian, Henri Stierlin, who claims that the bust is just a copy dating from 1912.
Zahi Hawass, naturally, is less than pleased:
"Stierlin is not a historian. He is delirious," Zahi Hawas, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities told AlArabiya.
As always, everyone has a motive. If the head were fake, then the Germans would be off the hook for holding on to what everybody knows is a stolen artifact. They could replace their much-deserved shame with a cute story about an archaeologist who just wanted to "test some ancient pigments" on a new bust, and make the ancient queen look pretty by painting her with a necklace. How nice!

By the same token, the Egyptians have a lot invested in the iconography of Nefertiti - and have spent time and energy in demanding the return of the bust. If it were fake, they would lose not only their symbol and their efforts but also one of their negotiating chips with Western governments in the ongoing game of repatriation.

It also illuminates one of the worst results of looting. If no one keeps records of when and where artifacts came out of the ground, then no one has any idea what is fake. Being left holding a fake is an ironic and appropriate punishment - a tisis if you will - for curators and collectors who let their lust for possession overwhelm their moral compass. But the consequences for scholars are more serious. Take the Cycladic figurines: of the 1,600 known examples, only 150 came from known contexts. The rest are so riddled with fakes that they are totally useless for archaeologists and objects of suspicion and mockery by laypeople.

Regardless of whether the bust is fake or not, then, the real crime is that Ludwig Borchhardt concealed the find, then hid the existence of the artifact for a decade, erasing all hope of confirming its provenience. His cupidity and cowardice are the real reasons this question even exists.


  1. These are all valid points and sadly the question of the bust's authenticity will never truly be answered!

    Charline Ratcliff, Author

  2. Stierlin's claims are, as they are described in the article, extremely circumstantial. Additionally, there *is* documentation - in the form of correspondence and diary entries from German and French scholars of the time (eg. Borchardt, Heinrich Schafer, Bruno Geuterbock; the French inspector of antiquites Lefebvre, etc.) - that mentions the Nefertiti bust, though admittedly in circumspect (and sometimes slightly inaccurate) terms because Borchardt, it seems, was intent on disguising the bust's true value and thereby avoiding turning her over to the Egyptian government during the division of finds. All of this is discussed in a relatively recent article in KMT [Krauss 2008; KMT 19(3) 44-53]. Also, the Nefertiti bust is hardly the only sculptor's model that exists of Nefertiti (and the bust is accepted by Egyptologists to be a model, not a completed work of art meant to be displayed). Thus, it does not exist in an artistic vacuum, as Stierlin is perhaps implying.

  3. Hey, I resent being called a layperson! Did that very intensive 4th year seminar in archaeology of the Aegean mean nothing??

    Yeah...probably not.