Anglo-French rivalry, a touch of Germanophobia, two world wars and a flawless artefact. This is the background of what became known as the Nefertiti Affair.
Even if you have never set foot in Egypt or you’re not sure why Nefertiti’s name rings a bell, you’ve probably seen her face somewhere. With the golden mask of Tutankhamun, the bust of Queen Nefertiti, now displayed in the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the best known pieces of Egyptian art. It was discovered in 1912 in Tell el-Amarna by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft, and has never ceased to fascinate since 1923, when it was displayed for the first time.
In December 1918, the London-based Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF, now the Egypt Exploration Society) expressed an interest in excavating at Tell el-Amarna, the capital of Pharaoh Akhenaten (best known for having tried to impose a quasi-monotheistic cult of the sun) and his wife Nefertiti (FO 141/589).
Pierre Lacau, the (French) Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Department, initially wanted to keep the site (FO 141/589). In March 1919, he acknowledged that the Department was overworked and stated he was prepared to grant a concession to excavate. However, he explained, the site was of great archaeological importance (bear in mind he didn’t know about Nefertiti!), and the antiquities discovered there should really not be scattered. In 1912, he said, the Germans had discovered a sculptor’s workshop; abiding by the terms of the concession which granted the excavators half the objects discovered, the Antiquities Department had to divide the objects equally while they should have been considered as a whole. He added:
‘in that respect, we have nothing specific to blame the Germans for: they have used the right the Government had generously granted them at its own expense.’ (FO 371/3724)