Thousands of artifacts are now returning to Egypt from abroad, but one piece continues to elude decades of government calls for its return: the famous bust of Nefertiti.
The bust has become such a contentious symbol that a copy of it is now part of an exhibition at the Ruhr Museum in Germany dubbed "The Great Game: Archaeology and Politics in the Colonial Period," open until 13 June.
The original, unfinished sculpture from Thutmose’s workshop in Tel Amarna is internationally recognized for its artistic quality and aesthetic beauty.
The Egyptian government says it was illegally smuggled out of the country some time around 1924. The German government has always refused to repatriate the queen, which remains the centerpiece of the Neues Museum in Berlin.
The Ruhr exhibition also displays the contract between the Egyptian government and the sponsor of the Thutmose’s workshop exhibition, James Simon, who was also the founder of the German Oriental Society.
Charlotte Trümpler, curator of both the exhibition and of the archeological collection at the Ruhr Museum, said it was clear that all parties had agreed that half the findings would go to the excavation team.
Authorities in Egypt say the export papers for the bust were deceptive, since it listed the bust as a statue of a "princess"–a description hardly befitting one of the most powerful queens in pharaonic Egypt.
"I don’t think Nefertiti’s bust left legitimately, because, despite there being a contract, maybe Nefertiti was hidden or not seen by the person who ought to have seen her and decided on whether she should leave or not," said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.
That the copy of the bust at the Ruhr was made for the Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1913, a year after the original was discovered, does not prove the Germans knew of its importance at the time–or that they intentionally deceived Egyptian authorities.
Trümpler said the Kaiser had been the patron of many archaeological activities, not only of the bust.
"He sponsored excavations in Babylon and other places because he presided over the German Orientalist Society," Ikram explained.
A few years after the bust left its homeland, the Egyptian government realized its importance. Germany, however, refused to return it.
"King Fouad II wanted Nefertifi back and they offered statues from the Cairo Museum to make an exchange," Trümpler said. "They knew the bust came to Germany correctly through a find sharing [contract]."
"They had other objects that the director of antiquities found more important," she added. "He wasn’t so interested in this bust."
But the relationship between colonial rule and the exportation of antiquities raises the question of whether the antiquities in question left their country of origin legitimately.
"It’s a complicated thing because, at that time, that was the legitimate government, whether one likes it or not," Ikram said.
France, the US and the United Kingdom have recently been repatriating items following pressure from and negotiations with Egypt. In early March, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) announced that the UK had recently returned about 25,000 artifacts, some dating back to the Stone Age.
In October, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York agreed to return a granite relief fragment. Around the same time, the Louvre announced it would send back five fresco fragments after French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand convened a special meeting on the issue.
"What they’re giving back are small things on the whole, and I think that they’re doing it with good will and good intent," Ikram said. "In some cases, what they are doing is giving a fragment of something the larger part of which remains in Egypt, so they’re completing something."
In other cases, the objects appear to have been smuggled illegally. This week, US authorities are sending back to Egypt a 3,000-year-old casket found with a Spanish dealer who failed to provide papers showing proof of ownership.
"This coffin is one of the most beautiful wooden coffins, dating to 1080 BC," said Egyptian Culture Minister Farouq Hosni in a statement today. "It’s return to Egypt comes after nearly three years of Egyptian-American contacts through which Egypt succeeded in proving its legal right to restore this coffin."
SCA Secretary-General Zahi Hawass could not be reached for comment because he was traveling to the US to bring back the coffin.
Hawass has repeatedly called for the return of antiquities from a number of countries, sometimes threatening to cut off cultural ties as a means of exerting pressure. Such pressure may have contributed to the decision by the Louvre–and other museums–to repatriate antiquities, but the Germans have yet to acquiesce.
"Frankly, Nefertiti is an iconic piece," Ikram said. "I’m sure the Germans feel they would lose not only tourism, but also prestige, by returning her."