Germany and Egypt fight over bust of Nefertiti: will Zahi Hawass’s crusade ever end?

Egypt, egyptYou win some, you lose some.

Zahi Hawass is a man who is used to getting his way. The head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has been fighting to repatriate stolen Egyptian artifacts for years, and more often than not he wins.

This time, though, he’s suffered a setback. He’s trying to get the Neues Museum in Berlin to return the famous bust of Nefertiti. He claims it was stolen by a German archaeologist a century ago who covered it with clay to hide its true value. Museum officials told the BBC it was legally exported and that it’s too delicate to move anyway.

The bust is the centerpiece of the Neues Museum’s amazing display of Egyptian artifacts, one of the best collections in the world. Nefertiti was the wife of the mysterious pharaoh Akhenaten, who put the Sun god Aten above all others in the Egyptian pantheon. Vengeful priests erased his name from monuments after his death in 1338 BC.

This won’t be the last battle in the war for Nefertiti. Dr. Hawass’s predecessors have been trying to get the bust back since 1930. What really needs to be done is for museums, governments, and archaeologists to get together and come up with a binding agreement on how to deal with these issues. Perhaps a neutral International Antiquities Court could be set up via the UN? At the moment Dr. Hawass has little power to force Germany or any other country to return artifacts, other than threats (which worked with the Louvre) or constant badgering. With a proper system in place, Dr. Hawass could get a good night’s sleep.

But having seen the inner workings of far too many museums and academic departments, I don’t hold out much hope for an amicable agreement. Too many people are trying to cling to their little bit of turf.

[Photo courtesy Philip Pikart]