BERLIN — When Ludwig Borchardt first held the life-sized bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti in his hands 100 years ago, his immediate thoughts reflected a clear understanding of the magnitude of his discovery. “Really wonderful work,” he wrote in his diary immediately after unearthing the bust, now a star attraction at the Neues Museum here. “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

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Although the “life-sized painted bust of the queen, 47 centimeters (18.5 inches) high; with the blue wig cut straight on top, and garlanded by a ribbon half-way up,” as Borchardt went on to describe the head, has remained in German hands since its discovery 100 years ago last month, it has been the source of bitter disputes for nearly as long.
To mark the century since the Nefertiti took up residence in Berlin, an exhibition at the Neues Museum explores the short reign of the queen and her husband, the pharaoh Akhenaten, in the royal city they founded around 1346 B.C. Using hundreds of artifacts recovered by Borchardt and his team during the same excavation, “In the Light of Amarna” explores the artistry and craftsmanship of the era.
Equally important from a historical perspective, though tucked away in the lower level of the museum far from the Nefertiti, another part of the show examines the lore that surrounds the bust. Through archeological diaries, hand-drawn maps and sketches of the dig — and letters appealing to the Germans’ sense of morality about Nefertiti’s removal — various documents leave no doubt of Berlin’s position about who is entitled to keep the bust.
“The bust is without doubt rightfully in the ownership of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation,” Bernd Neumann, the minister for cultural affairs, said before the exhibition opened on Dec. 7. The foundation runs many of Berlin’s leading cultural organizations.
Just three years ago, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, was claiming that Borchardt had swindled Egypt a century ago when he removed the bust from the country. The exhibition documents how — under the laws at the time that stipulated an equal division of all materials discovered — the bust was part of the Germans’ share, along with several hundred other artifacts.
Researchers said they believed that Borchardt was aware that the Frenchman who headed the Antiquities Service in Cairo, which was under French control from 1914 to 1936, was a philologist and had appeared to have weighted one group of findings more heavily with inscriptions. The other consignment consisted almost entirely of figures, including the Nefertiti. The French choose the group with the inscriptions.
Only after the bust was displayed in the Neues Museum in the 1920s did the magnitude of their loss become clear, initiating the first attempt to seek Nefertiti’s return. “Here is our point of view: The piece never should have left Egypt,” Pierre Lacau, then head of the Antiquities Service in Cairo, wrote to the German authorities in 1925. He urged the Germans to return the bust for “moral” reasons, and later offered two treasures from the Cairo Museum in exchange. The offer was rejected.
By 2009, Mr. Hawass had begun to raise questions about the bust’s removal from Egypt, writing letters to the cultural authorities in Berlin, who traveled to Cairo for discussions. The exchanges strained the cooperation on archeological and cultural issues between the countries to the point where Mr. Hawass turned down an invitation to attend the gala reopening of the newly renovated Neues Museum, which houses the Papyrus Collection and the Egyptian Museum, with Nefertiti as its star attraction.
The demands have petered out since the end of the Hosni Mubarak era in 2011. Concerns have shifted to safety issues at excavation sites around Egypt amid continuing turmoil around the country. “Since the election we have been to Cairo several times,” said Michael Eissenhauer, director of the State Museums of Berlin. “We have very good discussions and are seeking new avenues of cooperation.”
Excavations in the area around Amarna are leading to new discoveries. Dutch archeologists say they believe they have found evidence that Nefertiti, whose name means “The Beautiful One Has Arrived,” was still queen 16 years into her husband’s reign; many experts thought that she had died or had disappeared 12 years into his reign.
The limestone and plaster bust — with its elegantly arched neck and eyebrows, chiseled cheekbones and mysterious smile — has tiny, fine lines around her eyes, a hint that she lived to be a mature woman. A later likeness includes heavier lines around her eyes and mouth.
The items in the exhibition reflect Amarna in her lifetime as enlightened and peaceful. The works include faience jewelry, ceramic vases delicately painted with light blue flowers, and tiles decorated with birds and fish. A limestone relief shows Nefertiti as her husband’s equal, sitting face-to-face with him, surrounded by their daughters.
Many of the objects in the exhibition, which runs through April 13, are on display for the first time since Borchardt brought them back to Berlin.
In defending Berlin’s position on refusing to give up the bust, Mr. Neumann stressed the importance of allowing such treasures to remain available for research and study of all those who are interested. “Instead we should make clear that such a work of art belongs to a universal, global cultural heritage of a people, regardless of where it is,” Mr. Neumann said. “It should be made available to as many people as possible.” [And not highjacked by the Islamists now in power in Egypt.  You can bet your sweet bippy that the second they got their hands on it, it would be swapped for a plaster of paris look-alike that would be placed into the Cairo Museum under heavy guard and the REAL Nefertiti would be sold for countless millions, maybe even a billion, on the illegal antiquities market.]