Unearthed papers show US thwarted return of Nefertiti bust to Egypt

The bust was in Germany at the end of the war and was a favourite of Adolf Hitler

The bust of Queen Nefertiti. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Egypt’s attempts to retrieve the bust of Queen Nefertiti from the Nazis after the Second World War were thwarted by the United States, newly uncovered documents show.

The Americans dismissed the request fearing it would set a precedent that would lead to other ancient artefacts being returned and even said it would be following “Nazi principles”, letters shared with The National by Egyptologist Monica Hanna reveal.

Dr Hanna is the first researcher to unearth the documents, which have sat in the US National Archive (Nara) since the end of the war, which she has used to shed new light on how Queen Nefertiti's bust was smuggled out of Egypt to Germany and how it remained there despite the Egyptians' requests to the victorious Allies.

She has unearthed correspondence by the US Army unit that dealt with the restitution of looted Nazi art, which reveal how they blocked her country’s request to return the bust and served as the inspiration for the Hollywood film The Monuments Men, staring George Clooney amd Matt Damon.

Dr Hanna, associate professor and acting dean of the College of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport in Egypt, told The National that "as soon as I saw the letters, I was truly amazed".

"It also showed the inherent solid cultural imperialism in the West and how they truly saw the heritage of our country," she said.

The artwork had been smuggled out of Egypt in 1912 by a German archaeologist and put on display in Berlin in 1923, but the Egyptians have been calling for it to be returned almost from the day when it first appeared in public.

An agreement with the regional government of Prussia to return the 3,300-year-old bust was vetoed by Adolf Hitler, who was said to be “in love with Nefertiti” and it remains on display in Berlin's Neues Museum. Dr Hanna believes the bust should be treated as looted Nazi art, given Hitler’s role in keeping it in Germany.

At the end of the war, the bust of Queen Nefertiti was rediscovered along with a hoard of looted Nazi art in a salt mine in Wiesbaden, Germany, an episode touched on in The Monuments Men.

The letters were written in 1946 and came after Egypt’s prime minister, Mahmoud Fahmy al-Nokrashy Pasha, wrote to the US State Department stating that “this masterpiece of ancient Egyptian art must return to Egypt, which it should never have left”.

Initially the US appeared positive and suggested the Egyptians needed to make the request to the three other victorious allied powers, the United Kingdom, France and Soviet Union, Dr Hanna's new research paper Contesting the Lonely Queen reveals.

But while the Soviet Union appeared sympathetic, the Allied military administration told them it did not have the power to send back the bust because it came to Germany before the war.

The real life monuments men also moved to block restitution and Lamont Moore, an officer in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section Unit, as it was formally known, set out his reasons why this should be refused in a letter to Huntington Cairns, the executive officer of the National Gallery of Art.

Moore first dismisses the request from the Egyptians as being made merely on the basis of nationalist sentiment and to satisfy their vanity.

He continues: “To return this item to Egypt now would be to follow the Nazi principle of confiscating works of art by pretence or force to enlarge their own collections.

“I feel that if the Egyptian authorities succeed in their plan, we might be faced with similar problems which might not be easily solved once the Nefertiti precedent has been established.”

In another letter, Coll John H Allen, the chief of the Restitution and Reparations Branch of the Allied military administration of Germany, agreed with the stance.

He wrote that “granting this request might well establish a precedent which would require the return of thousands of art objects and other properties found in Germany”.

“In addition, it might very well reopen old disputes as to property which has been in possession of other nations for many years.”

Dr Hanna explained that she first came across the documents in 2021 when she was researching the reality of the monuments men, who are "usually hailed" for their work in returning Nazi-held art.

"I had the book published on the film and so I checked the bibliography and there I found that the author had consulted the Nara archive. I wrote to them about my inquiries, and they immediately responded with two folders that I downloaded."

She said the the letters revealed Egypt's prime minister's "naivety" in believing the "US was a true Egyptian friend, how confident they were in their strong US ties and were sure that the US will definitely help since their political culture was everything that was against Nazism, colonialism and imperialism".

The statue of Queen Nefertiti, the wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, was taken from Egypt by Ludwig Borchardt, the German archaeologist who unearthed it.

Dr Hanna has been at the forefront of calls for the bust to be returned and is one of the organisers of a petition calling on Mostafa Madbouly, the Prime Minister of Egypt, to submit an official request to have it repatriated.

The bust, which is 47cm tall, was discovered in 1912, but the manner in which Borchardt was able to take it to Germany is shrouded in controversy.

Dr Hanna makes the case for its treatment as Nazi looted art by drawing a parallel between the Queen Nefertiti bust and Discobolus Lancellotti, a sculpture bought by Nazi Germany from the Italian Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini at the request of Hitler but returned to Italy after the Second World War.

In her new research Dr Hanna also explores how Borchardt, who had a role in the former Antiquities Service in Egypt, was able to remove the bust of Queen Nefertiti from the country by committing what amounted to fraud.

She has also found documents in the UK's National Archive which reveal that the chief curator of the British Museum's Egyptian collection was corresponding with the British ambassador in Berlin to make sure that the Egyptian negotiations with the Prussian government failed.

This stemmed from the same fears the monuments men had about setting a precedent, in that instance regarding the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles

"This has to stop and the precedent has been delayed for almost a century because of Hitler," she said.

"A reversal of the veto of Hitler on the Prussian government agreement, which also respects the wishes of the Jewish donor of the bust to the museum, James Simon, should come today."

Updated: January 18, 2024, 3:07 PM