Has Nefertiti Gone Bust?

Shes an enduring symbol of feminine beauty, and one of the most iconic and replicated images of ancient Egypt. But is Queen Nefertitis bust discovered in the ruins of Amarna by Ludwig Borchardt in 1912 actually a fake?

Apparently so, according to leading Swiss art historian Henri Stierlin. He claims that the painted limestone and plaster sculpture is not the original, carved in the workshop of the Egyptian artist Thutmose 3,400 years ago, but actually a copy, created a century back by an artist commissioned by Borchardt.

The historian alleges that when the copy went on display in December 1912, it was much admired as an original work by German prince Johann Georg. Borchardt, who couldnt sum up the courage to ridicule his guests, failed to correct them, and the lie has stood for a 100 years, during which time Nefertiti has been on display in Berlins Altes Museum.

By way of evidence, Stierlin highlights the fact that the bust has no left eye, an insult for an ancient Egyptian who believed the statue was the person, plus the fact that the shoulders are cut vertically while Egyptians usually cut shoulders horizontally. He also points out that Nefertitis facial features are accentuated in a manner resembling an Art Nouveau style.

Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, the director of Berlins Egyptian Museum Dietrich Wildung dismissed the allegations. A beautiful woman and a putative scandal, he commented. That always sells.

The claims are made in Stierlins new book Le Buste de Nefertiti une Imposture de l’Egyptologie? (The Bust of Nefertiti an Egyptology Fraud?). The bust, which attracts half a million visitors annually, will become a major showpiece at Berlins reborn Neues Museum when it opens in October 2009.

Image of bust of Nefertiti (top) by Carlo Struglia.