Queen Nefertiti bust 'should be treated as Nazi loot and returned to Egypt'

Artwork is on display in Berlin but Egyptologist Monica Hanna says its Nazi links make solid case for restitution

The bust of Queen Nefertiti, at least 3,000 years old, pictured on display in Berlin. AP
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An ancient bust of Queen Nefertiti on display in Berlin should be treated as looted Nazi art and returned to Egypt, a leading expert has said.

The statue of the wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten was taken from Egypt by Ludwig Borchardt, the German archaeologist who unearthed it, and is now displayed in the Berlin's Neues Museum.

The bust, which is more than 3,000 years old and stands 47cm high, was discovered in 1912 but the manner in which Borchardt was able to take it to Germany has been shrouded in controversy. Egypt has been calling for its return almost from the moment it first went on public display in Germany in 1923.

Egyptologist Monica 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 repatriate it. She has carried out extensive research into how it was spirited out of Egypt and its links with the Nazi leadership which refused to hand it back.

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, highlights how the German authorities agreed to an Egyptian government request to return the statue during the 1930s but this was vetoed by Adolf Hitler who was said to be "in love with Nefertiti”.

She has also discovered new evidence about how Borchardt committed fraud to get the bust out of Egypt.

Dr Hanna recently travelled to Berlin from her home in Egypt to present the new evidence at a talk, which she says reinforces the case for its return by the museum.

“I think they know about Egyptian attempts at restitution, but it was Hitler who vetoed that. So it should be treated as Nazi looted art,” she told The National.

She drew 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.

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 Hollywood film The Monuments Men staring George Clooney and Matt Damon. The Nazi link to stolen artefacts was also famously referenced in the blockbuster film Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Dr Hanna has uncovered letters written by the Egyptian government to the allied administration running Germany and the US State Department at the time, seeking the return of the bust.

“Now that Hitler is no more and his will is no longer law, there is no obstacle to putting an end to a spoliation based on fraud and maintained by force,” Mahmoud El Nokrashy Pasha, Egyptian prime minister at the time, wrote the US State Department.

“This masterpiece of ancient Egyptian art must return to Egypt, which it should never have left.”

But the Egyptians were rebuffed and in her new research paper Contesting the Lonely Queen, Dr Hanna has unearthed a letter written by the executive officer of the National Gallery of Art, Lamont Moore, one of the heroes of The Monuments Men, setting out the reason.

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

Dr Hanna explained: "They were afraid of the precedent from restitution to a non-European country but they resituated the statue Hitler brought to Italy, which is double standards at its best”.

“This is to do with colonialism with the West looking at itself as heir of ancient Egypt.”

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.

Her paper says Borchardt did not accurately describe what he had found and lied about its true value during the process of what is known as partage. This was a system whereby foreign archaeologists shared objects for which they had paid to excavate between themselves and museums.

The Egyptian government later described this as “fraud” when it was seeking the return of the bust after the war.

“He tried to hide Nefertiti in a way that the Egyptian officials would not suspect,” says Dr Hanna.

She argues that restoring the bust of Queen Nefertiti to Egypt would bring an economic boost to the area of the country where it was discovered.

“It should go back to Minya and then it would change the whole face of Minya and the whole area would be open for better tourism," she said. "That would improve the livelihoods of many, many Egyptians.”

Dr Hanna believes the mood among Germans is changing slowly in favour of the restitution of the bust.

“I’ve received different reactions, sometimes they’re quite sympathetic ... some and are in favour of the restitution but other times they stonewall me, like the museum," she said.

“University scholars are more sympathetic and [so are] the younger generation of the public because they think that Berlin’s identity is not tied in with Nefertiti, which was stolen and is a crime of the past.

“The museum responds but does not engage. It’s neocolonialism.”

Dr Hanna said that along with other Egyptians, particularly women, she feels a strong affinity with Queen Nefertiti and her bust, even if they have no interest in archaeology.

She said: “It’s heritage and its ancestry and it’s even more meaningful for me as a woman, because you always see feminism from a western perspective, as if we can’t have our own feminist philosophy.

“I think that relating to the past, especially to powerful women, is part of Egyptian women seeing their role in the present. She [Queen Nefertiti] is an inspiration to modern women.”

The Neues Museum has been approached for comment.

Updated: January 11, 2024, 4:35 PM