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Nefertititi returns to Berlin's Museum Island after 66 years

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Berlin (dpa) - Having been returned to Berlin's Museum Island after a 66-year enforced absence, the world famous plaster bust of Queen Nefertiti went on public display Saturday at the city's imposing Carl Friedrich Schinkel-designed Altes Museum.

The unique Egyptian art work was along with other museum treasures scattered across Europe for safety during the 1939-45 conflict.

Then, with Nazi Germany crashing to defeat in early 1945, Hitler had the bust of Nefertiti stashed away in a Thueringian salt-mine. Recovered by advancing American forces, the priceless art work would later be a top attraction at the Egyptian Museum in what was West Berlin during the Cold War-division of the city.

But it was always the intention once Germany was reunited that it should be returned to the city's famous Museum Island which, in 1999, was elevated to World Cultural Heritage status by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

But first, a fortune had to be spent, and still is being spent, renovating the huge Museum Island complex. The effort includes reconstructing the historic war-ruined Neues Museum, a task currently being master-minded by British architect David Chipperfield.

Now, in a vitrine in a 1,200 square-metre specially-lit area at the 175-year-old Altes Museum, the plaster bust is being featured with a host of other ancient Egyptian treasures.

The Berlin Egyptian Museum collection rates as one of the world's finest, encompassing 35,000 artefacts, a 60,000 papyrus collection and the Kalabasha Gate.

Fourteen German business undertakings raised three million euros (3.75 million dollars) to pay for the Egyptian treasure trove to be moved from a museum in Charlottenburg, a western district, to the citys central "Mitte" district, where the Museum Island is situated.

While Nefertiti's arrival at the Altes Museum represents a German "homecoming", it will not be her final destination. In 2009, when reconstruction work on the neighbouring "Neues Museum" is complete, the bust will be switched there to its old pre-World War II home.

Speaking at the Altes Museum on Friday night after the transfer there of the Egyptian art work collection, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the city's Prussian Cultural Foundation, said Nefertitis return was a "milestone" in the Museum Island's history.

Lehmann said it came at a time when the Altes Museum was celebrating the 175th anniversary of its inauguration.

At the Charlottenburg Museum, where the Nefertiti bust was hitherto on display for the past 39 years 14 million visitors had come to see it, he said.

The Nefertiti plaster head, first crafted in 1350 BC, was buried for more than 3,000 years until German archaeologists rediscovered it in Egypt in the early 1900s.

A German art patron, James Simon, who had financed excavation work conducted by the German Orient Association in Tell el-Armana between 1911-1914, was allowed by the Egyptian authorities to keep the Nefertiti bust out of gratitude, after a huge treasure trove of relics were found at the site.

The colourful bust had remained in superb condition despite its antiquity. Back at home in Berlin, Simon initially kept it for several years in his Tiergarten villa before presenting it in 1920 to the city's Museum for early Asian art.

Dietrich Wildung, the director of the Egyptian Museum, admits that when he first saw the Nefertiti bust he was unimpressed. "It seemed altogether too smooth and pretty. Only with the years did begin to understand and appreciate its beauty," he said.

Walter Farr, an American army art officer who came across the Nefertiti bust amidst a vast collection of crated art works in the Thueringian salt-mine in 1945, revealed before his death in 1997 that he spent hours afterwards silently peering at the work

"Never again in my life would ever be so moved and fascinated as I was sitting before that magical art work," he said.

Copyright 2005 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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