Covert scan of museum's Nefertiti bust appears to be hoax

Last month I blogged about Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, a pair of artists who released a high-resolution scan of a looted Egyptian bust of Nefertiti in the collection of Berlin's Neues Museum, which has a reputation for refusing to make data from its collection (including 3D scans) public.

Now Cosmo Wenman, who has scanned and posted many pieces of classical sculpture for anyone to download, model and print, makes a very compelling case that Al-Badri and Nelles's scan is not what it seems.

Nelles has gone on record as saying that he is nontechnical and that he made the scan by smuggling in a modified Kinect under his clothes, from which an unnamed third party was able to extract the data necessary to produce the high-resolution model-file for Nefertiti. But as Wenman points out, the file that Nelles and Al-Badri released is of much higher quality than anything that anyone's managed to produce with a Kinect to date.

More damning, though, are the points of similarity between Al-Badri and Nelles's file and the official 3D scan of Nefertiti produced by Trigonart, a contractor working for the museum -- a model-file that's never been released to the public.

Wenman hypothesizes that Al-Badri and Nelles's unnamed collaborator (who has since reportedly left Europe) somehow obtained an illicit copy of the official scan, and conceived of a hoax to cover up the source of the file -- tricking Nelles into thinking that he was making a scan of the bust by walking around it with the Kinect parts under his clothes, handing him the museum's official file, and turning him loose to tell a tale whose technical details were conveniently unverifiable.

Wenman blames the whole situation on Neues Museum's "bad institutional practices regarding secrecy":

The Neues Museum is hoarding 3D scans that by all rights it should share with the public, and The New York Times has allowed anonymous sources into the chain of custody of the facts of its story. Mo< As I’ve explained elsewhere, digitizing artwork radically increases the importance of provenance—where artifacts and information come from, who controlled it, and who edited it. Museums are in the best position to produce and publish 3D data of their works and provide authoritative context and commentary about the work, the art, the data, and what it means. I know from first-hand experience that people want this data, and want to put it to use, and as I explained to LACMA in 2014, they will get it, one way or another. When museums refuse to provide it, the public is left in the dark and is open to having bogus or uncertain data foisted upon it.

Museums should not be repositories of secret knowledge, but unfortunately, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Neues is not alone in the keeping their scan data to themselves. There are many influential museums, universities, and private collections that have extremely high quality 3D data of important works, but they are not sharing that data with the public.

The Nefertiti 3D Scan Heist Is A Hoax [Cosmo Wenman]

Notable Replies

  1. Why would the museum make public so much data you can create your own antiquities? Do they release super high resolution scans of their paintings? I guess they might, but there's still something to be said for going to the museum.

  2. Comparing renders of the two scans isn't going to tell anyone anything, surely? They're of the same object so of course they're going to look alike. More helpful might be to look at the base of the models: if the museum's scan shows something other than the plinth the bust is presently mounted on, for instance, and the artists' scan shows the same thing, that would support the argument that they are the same file.

    Otherwise, I imagine that you'd have to get into the detail of the models, showing that the particular arrangement of segments for a random bit of paint is exactly the same. Are there any renders of close-ups showing the layers of paint for example that can be compared?

  3. I wonder if 3D scans will have "trap dimples" in the same way maps have trap streets, or if there are any examples of ones that already do.

  4. Museums are public institutions, not private corporations. They hold all the stuff so that the public can have access to it, that's their purpose. If a museum scans something or even takes pictures of it, the public should have reasonable access to that data. If the museum deems, for whatever ineffable reason, that the public has no right to that data then they shouldn't create that data in the first place.

  5. If you've used a Kinect and seen the raw data there's no chance in hell it looks as good as that rendering does. It's great for big things, here's the nose, that's the eye, but it would never pick up the detail in that head wrap as well, especially if done surreptitiously like they claim.

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