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Egypt, Germany At Odds Over Nefertiti Bust

January 25, 2011

Despite a request from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), officials at a German historical group are refusing to return a 3,400-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti to her homeland.

The bust was discovered on the banks of the Nile River in 1912 by a German archaeologist by the name of Ludwig Borchardt. It arrived in Germany the following year, and has remained in the European nation ever since, attracting more than a million visitors each year to the Neues Museum in Berlin.

SCA head Zahi Hawass is looking to change that, however. According to AFP and Reuters reports, Hawass sent what he is calling an “official request” for the bust’s return. The letter in question, which Hawass says has the backing of Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Culture Minister Faruq Hosni, was sent to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the governing body of the Neues Museum.

According to a Reuters report on Monday, the letter stated, “This request is a natural consequence of Egypt’s long-standing policy of seeking the restitution of all archaeological and historical artifacts that have been taken illicitly out of the country.”

Similar requests have been sent to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in the past, as well as to other international museums and organizations currently in possession of relics discovered in Egypt–including to the British Museum, current home of the Rosetta Stone–the wire service reported.

Officials both with the Foundation and the German government acknowledged that the Museum officials had received a letter from Hawass, but both foreign ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke and Foundation officials denied that it constituted an official request.

“This is not an official request. An official request is a request from one government to another,” Peschke said during a government briefing in Berlin, according to AFP. Likewise, the Foundation pointed out that the request was not official because it had not been signed by the Prime Minister.

At the heart of the issue is a debate over whether or not the bust was removed from Egypt illegally. According to the Foundation, a 1912 agreement allowed for any artifacts discovered during the dig to be divided up between the two countries, and that the relics themselves were transported in open crates “so that they could be inspected.”

According to the AFP, however, Egyptian officials claim that Borchardt realized “the unique nature and artistic quality” of the Nefertiti bust, “as well as its historical importance,” and had the artifact illegally transported Germany.

Officials there have been attempting to regain possession of the bust since the 1930s, but German officials “have insisted the piece was bought legally by the Prussian state, and that there are documents to prove it,” the French news agency reported.

“Egypt recognizes and appreciates the care and effort undertaken by the government of Germany to preserve and display the painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti,” Hawass said in a statement, according to AFP. However, he added that the “unique treasure” should “be returned to the possession of its rightful owners, the Egyptian people.”

“The foundation’s position on the return of Nefertiti remains unchanged,” foundation president Professor Hermann Parzinger countered, according to Reuters. “She is and remains the ambassador of Egypt in Berlin.”

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