Egypt’s antiquities chief announced he will formally demand that a 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti displayed at Berlin’s Neues Museum for 85 years be returned to its homeland.
Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, found that the bust – one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt – was smuggled out of Cairo through fraudulent documents, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Hawass has been leading an aggressive campaign to reclaim treasures allegedly stolen from Egypt. Since assuming his role as head of antiquities in 2002, he has recovered some 5,000 artifacts.
Just this past week, Hawass convinced the Louvre in Paris to return 3,200-year-old painted wall fragments from that were stolen from a tomb excavation in 1975. Hawass pressured the museum to hand over the artifacts by suspending their current excavation in southern Cairo.
The bust of Nefertiti is one of the high-profile items Hawass is demanding. Egypt has asked for it to be returned since it was first displayed in Germany in 1924.
It is believed that German excavator Ludwig Borchart disguised the bust’s true value by covering it with clay, and then listed the artifact in official documents as simply “a painted plaster bust of a princess.”
However, Borchardt clearly refers to the artifact as the head of Nefertiti in his diary, meaning he may have intentionally written a deceitful description so Germany could obtain the statue.
According to German news source Deutsche Welle, Friedrike Seyfried, director of the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection at the Neues Museum has rebuffed Hawass’ claims.
“The German position is clear and unequivocal,” she said. “The acquisition of the bust by the Prussian state was lawful.”
German authorities have also ruled out temporarily lending the treasured artifact to Egypt, maintaining the bust is too fragile to move.
The bust was discovered in 1912 at Tell el-Amarna and shipped to Germany in 1913. Egypt first requested the statue be returned in 1930 but each successive German government has refused.
Nefertiti whose name means “the beautiful one has come” is the wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton. The royal couple is known for changing Egypt’s religion from polytheism to a religion worshipping just one god, Aten, the sun. Some scholars believe Nefertiti ruled Egypt for a brief period after her husband’s death.
Among the other famous artifacts on Hawass’ list include the painted ceiling of the Dendera temple showing the Zodiac at the Louvre, the bust of Achhaf from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a statue of the Hemiunu from Germany’s Roemer-Pelizaeu museum.
Rumors are also circulating that Hawass will ask for the Rosetta Stone, a multilingual slab that was key to deciphering hieroglyphics that has been on display almost continuously at the British Museum since 1802.