On 6 December 1912, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt uncovered one of the most iconic artefacts from Egyptian history: the bust of Nefertiti. She was lying within the remains of the sculptor Thutmose’s workshop in Akhetaten (modern Amarna).
Made of a combination of limestone and stucco plaster, she came out of the ground pretty much as she looks now – including her missing left eye – and stands at just under half a metre tall. She wears the tall crown that she’s typically shown wearing in other reliefs and, unlike most other Egyptian statues, she looks to be lifelike rather than the idealised Egyptian standard.
Her looks are exquisitely beautiful, with high cheekbones, strong jawline and delicate Egyptian kohl eyeliner, she sits and gazes with a look of serenity and self-composure.
Probably a sculptor’s model for producing other pieces, Nefertiti now takes pride of place at the Neues Museum in Berlin and welcomes around half a million viewers every year.
Controversies surrounding the Nefertiti bust
The bust of Nefertiti has been involved in two different types of controversy over the years. Firstly, there has been dispute over the legality of Germany’s ownership of her. Although there was an agreement in place between Egypt and Germany, some have claimed that Borchardt rather underestimated her value to the Egyptian authorities in order to secure custody of her. It’s still a bone of contention to this day.
Secondly, there are some who have claimed that the bust itself is a modern fake. Once such claim was put forward by Swiss art historian Henri Stierlin, who claims that Borchardt made the bust to test ancient pigments. However, when the bust was admired by Prince Johann Georg of Saxony, Borchardt didn’t want to embarrass him by telling him it wasn’t ancient.
The most recent claim against her authenticity was made by a convicted art forger. Sean Greenhalgh has fooled many into buying his forgeries, including Bolton Museum, who bought what they thought was a statue of an Amarna princess for a six-figure sum. In a documentary in 2014, Sean explained why he thought the Nefertiti bust was a forgery, including what he perceives to be the very selective damage to her.
But whatever Nefertiti’s history may be, the bust remains world-famous and the epitome of Egyptomania to this day.
I’ve never been to see the bust in Germany, but would absolutely love to. Have you seen her in person? What did you think? Is she as wonderful ‘in the flesh’ as she’s made out to be?
- The Nefertiti bust on Wikipedia
- The Nefertiti bust on the Neues Museum website
- A video analysis of the bust from an art point-of-view on the Khan Academy
- The Stierlin forgery claim on The Guardian
- An edited interview (from the Treasures Decoded documentary) on the Smithsonian YouTube channel
- A history of the ongoing sparring between Egypt and Germany over the custodianship of the bust on Spiegel Online