For Egyptians, the ancient civilization their ancestors established along the life-giving Nile River and beyond is still a sense of national pride.[...] Tied to the revolution is the question of repatriation of ancient artifacts. In recent years some native Egyptologists have requested the return of such items as the bust of Queen Nefertiti, now in the Neues Museum in Berlin, and also the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum in London. [...] But with current situation in Egypt, historical materials are even less likely to be returned.
“Zahi Hawass loved to bring this topic up every now and then,” Scott said, referring to the former minister of antiquities. The appointee of Mubarak, often sporting an Indiana Jones-like fedora, Hawass frequently demanded the return of objects in foreign hands. “In certain circles, it was popular. The truth is, the Rosetta was part of a treaty in the early 1800s, it’s nothing that the British Museum is going to relinquish," Scott said.
“Hawass’s job was to keep Egypt in the news,” Teeter said of the flamboyant now-retired minister, “and he did a good job of that.” However, most don’t put much stock in the sometimes controversial debate. “There are very specific laws that if a good case is made, then an artifact should go back,” Teeter said. “But there are things that have been out of the country for hundreds of years and have no legal basis for repatriation."
Scott said it is unlikely any famous artifacts will be returned. “Unless they were illegally obtained somehow," she said. "But for the most part they were obtained as gifts or through international treaties. It’s a difficult political discussion.”
Of course one reason why "famous artefacts" might go back is so that the museum displays of the 'source country' can give a much more complete picture. For example we could take the case of the bust of Nefertiti. If at some future date a prestigious, super-modern site museum was to be set up at Amarna with many of the premier pieces of Amarna art from the site displayed alongside each other attempting to give a holistic picture of the period and place. Should this iconic piece then be allowed to remain in far-off Berlin as, let us be honest, a piece of trophy art, rather than taking its place and serving a function among the other items produced in Egypt at a specific place and time, a place and time which precisely this one work epitomises so well? (The same goes of course for the Parthenon Marbles.)
*Medill Reports is written and produced by graduate journalism students at Northwestern University’s Medill school. Nefertiti bust from Wikicommons.