UPDATED Scanning artists de-loot stolen Egyptian treasure from a German museum

Update: All is not what it seems: it appears that the artists and the public were duped by a third party into passing off an illicitly obtained official scan as one that had been made by covert means.

Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, an Iraqi/German artistic duo, covertly scanned a famous looted Egyptian treasure, the Bust of Queen Nefertiti, from its contested perch in Berlin's Neues Museum.

The hi-rez 3D file is now free to download and print — the artists have printed their own full-size epoxy resin replica.

The original is the crown jewel of the Neues Museum, but Egyptian curators have long agitate for its repatriation to Egypt — it was looted from an Egyptian site in Amarna in 1912 by German archaeologists. The artists have donated their replica bust to the Cairo museum.

The Neues Museum is believed to have made its own scan of the bust, but it does not share 3D models of its collection as a rule, and has a generally guarded posture towards such data.

It's possible that the artists violated the museum's conditions of admission by making their scan, but the bust itself is not in copyright. It's my belief that trafficking in the 3D model by people who never agreed to the museum's terms (that is, people who've never bought a ticket) is perfectly legal, though it may enrage the museum and possibly prompt legal action against the artists, whom, I suspect, would relish the fight.

As scanning becomes easier and more reliable (it's already possible to produce high quality scans from 2D photos shot from multiple angles, using algorithms that infer geometry from the stills), museums will have to contest with this kind of action more often, since banning scanners will soon be synonymous with banning cameras — and before long, that will be synonymous with banning assistive devices for patrons with visual impairments.

In a gesture of clear defiance to institutional order, Al-Badri and Nelles leaked the information at Europe's largest hacker conference, the annual Chaos Communication Congress. Within 24 hours, at least 1,000 people had already downloaded the torrent from the original seed, and many of them became seeders as well. Since then, the pair has also received requests from Egyptian universities asking to use the information for academic purposes and even businesses wondering if they may use it to create souvenirs. Nefertiti's bust is one of the most copied works from Ancient Egypt — aside from those with illicit intents, others have used photogrammetry to reconstruct it — and its allure and high-profile presence make it a particularly charged work to engage with in discussions of ownership and institutional representations of artifacts.

"The head of Nefertiti represents all the other millions of stolen and looted artifacts all over the world currently happening, for example, in Syria, Iraq, and in Egypt," Al-Badri said. "Archaeological artifacts as a cultural memory originate for the most part from the Global South; however, a vast number of important objects can be found in Western museums and private collections. We should face the fact that the colonial structures continue to exist today and still produce their inherent symbolic struggles."

Al-Badri and Nelles take issue, for instance, with the Neues Museum's method of displaying the bust, which apparently does not provide viewers with any context of how it arrived at the museum — thus transforming it and creating a new history tantamount to fiction, they believe. Over the years, the bust has become a symbol of German identity, a status cemented by the fact that the museum is state-run, and many Egyptians have long condemned this shaping of identity with an object from their cultural heritage.

Artists Covertly Scan Bust of Nefertiti and Release the Data for Free Online
[Claire Voon/Hyperallergic]

(via Bruce Sterling)