I call it the $390 million lunch. It was held alfresco on the banks of the Nile, late morning, Monday, 20 January, 1913. The host of this cannibal's soiree was the "tactless and brusque” archeologist Ludwig Borchardt (above), 50 year old special attache of the German Embassy in Cairo and director of the German Oriental Society, which had just finished its sixth season of excavations of the abandoned capital city of Akanaten. Borchardt had spent two years cataloging the Egyptian Museum, and was the first to realize the Great Pyramids of Giza were not merely tombs, but a necropolis complex. He had even studied the best forgers in the Cairo market. No one knew ancient Egypt better than Ludwig Borchardt, and he was hungry for more. His main course this day was Gustave Lefebvre, a 33 year old Frenchman fluent in classical Greek, who had studied in Athens, was an expert in Ancient Greek and Egyptian literature and had been working in Egypt since 1902. Lefebvre was no slouch. Nevertheless, Borchardt was about to him eat him for lunch.
The meal began with a feast, the best that could be supplied to distinguished Europeans in the age of imperialism, complete with copious quantities of good French wine. And after the calf had been fatted, Bourchardt led his victim first into the hot office tent to read the carefully inventoried list of finds, and then into the larger darker tent where the finds were laid out in open boxes, as dictated under the Egyptian “Partage” law. For 30 years every foreign expedition had been required to divide its finds "à moitié exacte" – into two financially equal shares - from which the Egyptian Museum would take their choice. In 1912 the law was strengthened to also allow the Museum to retain any particular item from the expedition's share. It was all an attempt to stem the wholesale European theft of Egyptian heritage.
Except the new law said the division was supposed to be held at the museum on Wasim Hasan street in downtown Cairo, not in the field. And there were no Egyptians in authority at the Egyptian Museum, - there had never been. No Egyptians were qualified. Since the French invaded in 1798, and the British replaced them in the 1882, Egyptian history had been yet another resource to be exploited by the patriarchal European colonialist. Their excuse was they meant well. But even with the best of intentions, the most valuable bits and pieces of Egyptian history ended up being owned by Germans, the English, French and Italians. If they could have boxed up the pyramids and shipped them home, they would have. What was about to happen here at Arkanaten would be a good example.
Just after lunch on 6 December, 1912, Ludwig Borchardt received a note from Ahmed al-Sabussi, one of his Egyptian foremen, informing him that a “flesh-colored neck with red bands painted into it” had been uncovered at a building then identified as P47.2, room 19. Later it would be determined to have been the studio of Thutmose, when an ivory horse blinker was found in a courtyard rubbish pit inscribed with his name and his occupation - “sculptor”. Ludwig, sensing something, important, raced to the site and was presented with the now completely uncovered bust. The instant he looked at it, Borchardt knew it was Nefertiti because of her flat topped crown, and he knew it was extraordinary. He wrote in his diary, “You cannot describe it with words. You must see it....Colors as if just applied. Work is outstanding.” They even took the time to take photographs.
Borchardt noted that the bust was missing its left eye, and offered a reward of £5 if it could be found. (It would not be) Then, because it was getting dark, he ordered Professor Herman Ranke (above, left) to guard it overnight. Ranke later boasted, that night he slept next to the beautiful Nefertiti. In the morning Borchardt had the queen moved to his own tent, and he kept her there, out of sight, until Gustave Lefebvre arrived in January to oversee the division of spoils – er, artifacts.
In the office tent Lefebvre noted that atop the left hand column of the inventory were listed ten stone artifacts, including a rare limestone colored “folding alter” a sort of TV tray (above), a duplicate of one already the prize of a Berlin museum. Midway down the right hand column of 25 plaster busts, was listed “a colored gypsum bust of a princess of the royal family”. In fact it was Nefertiti. In addition, the Frenchman was shown a photograph of each artifact, although Bruno Guterbock, secretary of the Society, who was present, admitted the photo of Nefertiti was “not exactly the most advantageous.” Borchardt himself later confessed the picture was composed so as hide her beauty, but also“ to refute, if necessary, any later talk...about concealment.” The slight of hand, worked. The affable Lefebvre accepted the Germans had divided the finds into “approximate equivalency”. In fact, it seemed more than fair. The Egyptians got all the stone artifacts while the Germans were keeping only the cheaper plaster ones.
Then they went into the larger, darker storage tent, where all the boxes were sitting, open, available for inspection. Guterbock was now very nervous. He had warned Borchardt about his “"obfuscation of the material.” The box containing Nefertiti was in a back row, open as all the crates were, her blue crown hidden beneath a black wig. But if Lefebvre should bother to lift the two and a half foot tall statue he would know immediately it was far too heavy to be made of plaster. Borchardt assured his secretary that if caught he would simply say it was all a mistake. But, as the German had anticipated, after a “superficial examination” of the artifacts, Lefebvre approved of the German division of the spoils, thanked his host, and headed back to Cairo.
Within hours the lady began a 2,000 mile journey to Berlin, Germany. There she was presented to the man who had paid for her excavation, the cotton importer and clothing exporter, Henri James Simon (above). He was the sixth richest man in Germany, a self described Prussian Jew, known as the only collector who brought more objects out of Egypt than Napoleon. And he donated them all to German museums. However, the bust of Nefertiti was so beautiful that Simon held onto her for a year, in part at the urging of Borchardt. Even after the rest of the expedition's hoard went on public display in the Berlin Museum in 1914, the lady was kept hidden. At the end of June that year the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were gunned down in Sarajevo, Serbia. Within a month all of Europe was sucked into war, and for four years archeology became an unaffordable luxury.
The war ruined Simon.. The British blockade cut him off from his cotton and his customers. In 1917 he donated everything he still held to the Berlin Museum. And in 1924 “she who comes in beauty” went on public display, even though Borchardt strongly advised against it. The queen of the Nile was an instant hit, producing headlines around the world, and long lines to gaze upon her face. The Europeans running the Egyptian Museum were offended and demanded the lady back. When it was clear there was no legal option, they canceled all German Egyptian digs in 1925. They later relented on that, but they never stopped asking that Nefertiti be returned.
For a long time there had been doubts about the authenticity of the limestone folding table top or altar which Borchardt had used to entice and distract Gustave Lefebvre. The hieroglyphic for truth (Maat) was misspelled in four separate places on the panel, and in the carvings Akhenaten is shown as left-handed, unlike every other depiction of him (above). And then in 2008 Italian scientists examined the the panel under ultraviolet light, and apparently what had looked like a patina of 3,000 years of weathering was merely a darker base color of paint. Even though the actual paper was never released for peer review, respected Egyptologist Rudolf Krauss, a curator at the Berlin Museum from 1982 to 2007, declared publicly that the altar was a fake perpetrated by Borchardt. Fellow Berlin curator, Dietrich Wildung, called the altar rubbish, and Christian Loeben, director of the Egyptian collection at the August Kestner Museum in Hanover, Germany called it an absolute forgery. But without the full paper, detailing methodology and results, it is impossible to speak with certainty.
If Borchardt was enough of a scoundrel to have faked the altar, can we trust he did not also fake the bust of Queen Nefertiti? The insurance companies have decided to avoid difficult questions like that, and merely set a price on the head of a Queen of the Nile. That figure is now at $390 million.
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