The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

Nefertiti Bust

Nofretete Neues Museum

The “Nefertiti Bust” is the Neues Museum’s best-known masterpiece. Nefertiti was the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten and Egypt’s Queen during 1370 B.C.-1330 B.C. The statue is renowned for the skill of the sculptor Thutmose, the well-preserved colouring and the beauty of Nefertiti herself.

The bust is a painted stucco-coated limestone work, believed to have been crafted in 1345 B.C. by the sculptor Thutmose, because it was found in his workshop in Amarna, Egypt. It is one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt. As a result, Nefertiti has become one of the most famous women of the ancient world and an icon of feminine beauty.

The name Nefertiti means “the beautiful one has cometh forth”. As the Great Royal Wife, she was the chief consort of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. Akhenaten initiated a new monotheistic form of worship called Atenism dedicated to the Sun disc Aten. He was the first Pharaoh to adopt monotheism; however, it did not survive as the state religion after his death.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children

A “house altar” depicting Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters.

The bust served in the workshop of the Tuthmosis, as a model for artists producing portraits of the queen. Nefertiti is shown as a woman with a subtle beauty which is not diminished by the folds under the eyes and chin or the slightly sunken cheeks. The bust is made of limestone which is covered with modelled gypsum. The eye is inlaid with crystal and the pupil attached with black coloured wax. The second eye-inlay was never completed.

The bust was discovered by German archaeologists in 1912 when they excavated the Thutmose’s workshop in Egypt. The German expedition was digging under license at the time from the government in Egypt, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

The “Nefertiti Bust” was brought to Berlin in 1913 just before World War I. During World War II, it was removed by the Nazi government to a secret location for safekeeping from the bombing of Berlin. The Nefertiti Bust was discovered by the occupying American forces in a salt mine and put on display in West Berlin. The Soviets who occupied East Berlin where the Neues Museum and Museum Island are located, objected and demanded that the bust is returned to the Neues Museum and Museum Island. The “Nefertiti Bust” became a pawn in Cold War rivalries between the East and West. Many masterpieces that were found in East German Museums by the Soviets were shipped to the Soviet Union as the spoils of war in 1945-1946.

Nefertiti (Nofretete in Berlin)

The “Nefertiti Bust” returned to Neues Museum after the Berlin Wall came down and after the museum’s restorations in 2009,  70 years after this masterpiece had been removed for its protection during the war.

The controversy continues, since 1925, Egypt has repeatedly asked Germany for its return. According to Egyptian authorities, the Germans took the Nefertiti statue in 1913 using fraudulent documents and deception. Germany insists their ownership of Nefertiti is without doubt and Berlin’s Egyptian Museum curators maintain that even a brief loan may damage the bust.

Many world leading museums insist that no one nation has an exclusive right to the legacy of the past. According to the German Culture Minister:

“There are artworks that belong to our collective consciousness — Nefertiti is such a work,” 

The bust had become an issue of national identity for Berlin. In 1999, Nefertiti appeared on an election poster for a political party as a promise for a cosmopolitan and multicultural environment with the slogan “Strong Women for Berlin”.  In yet another example, the Nefertiti Bust has been used on a 1989 German stamp.

Some of the Amarna masterpieces that are part of the “Egyptian Museum of Berlin” collection that can be seen at the Neues Museum or the Altes Museum in the “Museum Island” museums include:

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                     Nefertiti Bust
  • Date:                     1345 BCE
  • Material:             Limestone and stucco
  • Dimensions:      H: 48 cm (19 in)
  • Discovered:        1912: Amarna, Egypt
  • Museums:           Neues Museum, Berlin

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“Life is short, and truth works far and lives long: let us speak the truth.”
Arthur Schopenhauer

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Photo Credit: 1) By Philip Pikart (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 2) Public Domain, Link 3) By Giovanni from Firenze, Italy (Nefertiti (Nofretete in Berlin)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 4) By Unknownmyself (Gerbil from de.wikipedia) (Own work) [Public domain, GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons