UNESCO Revenge?

15-12-2011 10:12 AM

Judy Dempsey

Culture lovers, visitors and the city authorities of Berlin were reveling in the reopening last Friday of the Neues Museum in the heart of the German capital by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the culmination of decades of efforts to renovate a special site destroyed during World War II.
But the celebrations have been marred by a growing dispute between the German and Egyptian governments about the star of the show: the 3,300-year-old limestone and stucco bust of Queen Nefertiti, a wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten.
The Nefertiti sculpture has been in Germany since 1913. But it is only now that Egypt is demanding that this fragile and haunting object, perched alone in a domed room that overlooks the length of the museum, be returned.
The Egyptian antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, told the German media over the past few days that Nefertiti belonged to his country. In interviews with Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger and Spiegel Online, Mr. Hawass said that an official investigation had begun into how Nefertiti arrived in Germany. “If she left Egypt illegally, which I am convinced she did, then I will officially demand it back from Germany,” he said in both interviews.
It was the first time that Egypt had made an official request for the statue to be returned if it was found to have been illegally removed from Egypt.
The comments from Mr. Hawass came just weeks after the Culture Minister Faruq Hosni of Egypt complained bitterly about his failure to be elected as the new director general of Unesco, the United Nations culture agency based in Paris.
A German Foreign Ministry official would not say how Germany had voted. “It is secret,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Days after the defeat of Mr. Hosni, Mr. Hawass accused France of stealing antiquities and insisted that they be returned. He referred to five painted wall fragments dating to the Pharoahs which ended up in Paris at the Louvre Museum in 2000 and 2003.
After Egypt threatened to suspend cooperation for exhibitions organized with the Louvre, as well as any work conducted by the Louvre on the Pharaonic necropolis of Saqqara, south of Cairo, the French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, said that his country was ready to return the antiquities if they had been stolen.
German art experts deny that Nefertiti was taken out of Egypt illegally. “The documentation exists. The arrangements were agreed. The process was legal,” said Monika Grütters, an art history professor, legislator and a leading cultural expert in Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.
“There was a complete understanding about what would remain in Egypt and what would be taken to Germany,” Mrs. Grutters said by telephone. “Maybe there is a bit of jealousy on the part of Egypt over Nefertiti. In any event, I am not so sure Egypt has the best conditions for this statue,” she added. “And because it is so fragile, I am not sure the statue can even be flown. We have excellent conditions here in Germany.”
Mr. Hawass alleged that the Egyptian officials may have been misled about how Nefertiti had been taken to Germany in 1913. According to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, there exists a document written in 1924 explaining how the secretary of the German Oriental Company, which was involved in the region, gave an account of a meeting in 1913 between a senior Egyptian official and the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt. Mr. Borchardt had found the bust during a dig in 1912.
According to the document, the secretary was present at the meeting, which had been called to divide the spoils of a dig between Germany and Egypt. Mr. Borchardt, the witness noted, “wanted to save the bust for us.” Perhaps intentionally, the bust was not shown in the best light.
Hermann Parzinger, the head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s museums, told journalists ahead of the opening of the galleries that he was confident that Nefertiti’s place in Germany was secure.
The Neues Museum was for years a derelict, bomb-scarred shell. Situated in the former East Germany, it was left in its war-torn state because of the lack of funds. Nefertiti and thousands of other items have now been returned to their former home for the first time. It was only after the reunification of Germany in 1990 that Berlin city authorities, with substantial support from the federal government, could embark on a huge renovation of cultural sites, which has drawn more tourists to the city.
The neoclassical architecture of the museum, which has been recognized as a Unesco world heritage site, has been given a modernist touch by the British architect David Chipperfield. In his €233-million, or $347 million, redesign, he left some of the historic decay untouched. The original columns still show fire damage.
The New York Times (abridged)

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