April Fakes Day 2024: Bust of Queen Nefertiti

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The featured image is of a 3D printed copy of the Bust of Queen Nefertiti: Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC. Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung.

Exploring the potential for ‘fakes’ to reveal hidden truths

The featured image is of a 3D printed copy of the Bust of Queen Nefertiti: Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC. Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung.

This article is a contribution to April Fakes Day 2024, the University of Oxford’s exploration of hoaxes for April Fools’ Day, conceived by Professor Patricia Kingori of the Ethox Centre, University of Oxford.

In our age of misinformation, there is growing concern about fact vs fiction, but April Fools’ Day 2024 is a celebration of hoaxes, forgeries and fakes that Professor Patricia Kingori intends will encourage us to question what is real.

The Nefertiti Bust, made of limestone and covered in painted stucco, is one of the most iconic and captivating examples of naturalistic ancient Egyptian art that is thought to have been created by workshop of the sculptor Thutmose. [1] It was found in December 1912 during an excavation at the Middle Egyptian site of Tell el-Amarna. Nefertiti was wife of the 18th Dynasty Pharoah Akhenaten and although she is often referred to as the mother of the most famous Egyptian pharaoh, the boy king Tutankhamun, she is actually thought to be his stepmother. However, since Tutankhamun married his half-sister, Ankhesenamun, Queen Nefertiti is, many argue, also his mother-in-law. [2]

Tell el-Amarna is the Arabic name for the region surrounding the ancient Egyptian city of Akhetaten (which has been translated as ‘Horizon of the Aten’), the new capital city built by Pharaoh Akhenaten, around 1350 BC but abandoned shortly after his death. This site, along with Akhenaten’s tumultuous reign (1351–1334 BC), formed a major focus of international Egyptological research and archaeology around the turn of the 20th century. Scholars and archaeologists were particularly fascinated by Akhenaten’s founding of Atenism, that was met with fierce opposition at the time, regarded as the first monotheistic state religion [3].

The Tell el-Amarna excavation campaign was headed by the Egyptologist and architectural historian Ludwig Borchardt (1863–1938) who led the German excavation team. In the course of the subsequent partage, or division of the finds, the Nefertiti Bust was allocated to the German share.

In Monica Hanna’s forensic study of the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Nefertiti Bust, she found that Borchardt intentionally hid the object from the Egyptian authorities at the time of its discovery. [4] Borchardt forged his records during the division of the archaeological finds so that Germany could acquire the bust. Hanna argues that the export of the Nefertiti Bust was illegal according to the de jure terms of Egyptian law in 1912. She said Borchardt intentionally hid its historical value in the partage process. He did not accurately describe the bust in the division of finds report, at first concealing the object as representing an ‘Egyptian princess’, not Queen Nefertiti.

When the bust arrived in Germany in February 1913, it was displayed at the private residence of James Simon, the Tell el-Amarna expedition’s benefactor. Then Kaiser Wilhelm II saw the sculpture and was presented with it before Simon loaned his entire Egyptian collection from the Amarna excavation to the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. This ‘gift’ was made on condition that, if Egypt were to request the return of the Nefertiti Bust, the German National Museums would repatriate it. But this condition has never been met.

Hanna goes on to state that at the time, the British Museum’s Egyptian Department and the British ambassador to Berlin jointly agreed to block the restitution of the bust of Nefertiti at all costs because they believed it would open the doors to the restitution of the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Sculptures, both of which have been the subject of restitution claims by Egypt and Greece. For the past nearly 100 years Egypt has been demanding the restitution of the Nefertiti Bust and the Rosetta Stone and Greece wants the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, but to no avail.

The Other Nefertiti

The featured image is of a 3D printed copy of the Bust of Queen Nefertiti: Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC. Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung.

3D printed copy of the Bust of Queen Nefertiti: Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC. Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung.

The image of the Nefertiti Bust at the head of this article is a 3D printed replica in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. It is the result of a project called The Other Nefertiti, a cultural intervention by artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles.

In August 2015, Al-Badri and Nelles covertly scanned the Nefertiti Bust in the Neues Museum, Berlin, without the knowledge or permission of the Museum. Wearing a modified Kinect scanner under a garment; they are said to have captured the 3D data from the object that were the handed to a group of hackers who then edited them to produce high quality files that the artists made available online under a Creative Commons Licence. The artists said:

With the [intentional] data leak as a part of this counter narrative, we want to activate the artefact, to inspire a critical re-assessment of today’s conditions and to overcome the colonial notion of possession in Germany. [5]

In November 2015, with the support of the Goethe Institute, the artists brought 3D printed copies of the Nefertiti Bust to Egypt, and exhibited them in Cairo as part of the OFF Biennale. The exhibition was a performative return of the iconic sculpture to the country where it was excavated and illegally removed a century earlier by German archaeologists. The project inspired a wider cultural debate after December 2015, when the replica was shown at the Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg, Germany. The story was widely covered by international news media and raised crucial questions about authenticity, the spoliation of cultural property, copyright and control over the use of images depicting historical artifacts held by western museums. Although the Neues Museum has for some time made its own high-resolution 3D scans of the Nefertiti Bust for archival and conservation purposes, they have also been used to produce exclusive, high-end, limited-edition copies of the Nefertiti Bust for merchandising, and Neues Museum visitors are prohibited from taking their own photos of the object.

The Other Nefertiti can therefore only be considered a ‘fake’ in the sense that it is an unauthorised copy but not that it is ‘passing off’ as the original or doing so for financial gain. This replica of the Nefertiti Bust is made intentionally to challenge ownership, not just of the original museum object but also its reproduction. It asks us to consider what the philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin called the ‘aura’ of the original, in his famous 1935 essay, in which he questions whether, for those who encounter it, a copy can ever have the same impact as the prototype. Benjamin says:

…what shrinks in an age where the work can be reproduced by technological means is its aura…Reproductive technology…removes the thing reproduced from the realm of tradition. In making many copies of the reproduction, it substitutes for its unique incidence to a multiplicity of incidences. And in allowing the reproduction to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in, it actualises what is reproduced. [6]

Yet, The Other Nefertiti challenges Benjamin’s argument that the reproduction ‘shrinks’ the original because we have now become so used to reproductions of artworks having an aura all of their own, especially if the spectator has never encountered the original. Even though The Other Nefertiti does not have the colour or texture of the original, the striking and beguiling form of the prototype remains as a convincing approximation. It enables us to question another type of authenticity: to whom does the original belong and who has the right to reproduce it, or indeed to name it? By renaming the Nefertiti Bust as The Other Nefertiti, the prototype is rendered questionable in its appellation, as a kind of doppelgänger, whose status becomes just as questionable as the reproduction. Copies, reproductions or replicas may yet become authentic substitutes for cultural appropriation.


Grateful thanks to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, the Neues Museum Berlin and the artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles for contextual information about the Bust of Nefertiti and The Other Nefertiti.

Dr Errol Francis

March 2024

[1] Joyce Tyldesley (2018). Nefertiti’s face: the creation of an Icon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[2] Brenda Lange (2009) Nefertiti. London: Chelsea House.

[3] Julia Sampson (2023) Amarna city of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Nefertiti as Pharaoh. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

[4] Monica Hanna (2023) ‘Contesting the lonely Queen.’ International Journal of Cultural Property. 1-19. Cambridge University Press. Published online 4 December: doi:10.1017/S0940739123000115.

[5]   Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles: The Other Nefertiti. Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana. https://aksioma.org/the.other.nefertiti

[6]   Walter Benjamin (2008) The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Tr. J A Underwood. London: Penguin.