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The impossibility of stealing a 3,000-year-old head with a video game controller

The impossibility of stealing a 3,000-year-old head with a video game controller

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In Berlin's Neues Museum, there sits a 3,000-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti. The priceless artifact is under glass, kept safe by alarms, and watched by security guards. Last year, it was stolen.

But there was no daring heist, no Mission Impossible-esque dangling from the ceiling — the bust never moved from its place in the museum. Instead, two German artists said they stole its likeness, scanning Nefertiti from her home in the museum, releasing the data for free online, and 3D printing another version of the bust to take back to her native Egypt.

Through the magic of technology, it seemed, the ancient art was returned to the country it was taken — some say stolen — from in 1912. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation indicated its annoyance at the artists' actions in an email to the New York Times, but "The Other Nefertiti," as the artists called it, was already out there, and both Egypt and Germany now had versions of the bust. But there's a problem with the artists' story — experts say it's impossible.

Nora al-Badri, one of the artists involved in the "heist," claimed she scanned the bust using a modified version of Microsoft's Kinect — a 3D camera originally bundled with the Xbox One, and designed primarily to track the movement of the human body for video games. But when the scanned image was released, it was of a far higher quality than Microsoft's device should be capable of.

"From my own extensive experience in scanning with the Kinect," artist Fred Kahl told Hyperallergic. "I seldom capture a scan with more than 500,000 triangles in it." The Other Nefertiti, on the other hand, has more than two million. "There is simply no way this resolution is possible with a Kinect." Cosmo Wenman, another artist with extensive 3D imaging experience, agrees. "The Kinect scanner has fundamentally low resolution and accuracy", Wenman wrote on his own site, stating that "even under ideal conditions, it simply cannot acquire data as detailed as what the artists have made available."

A video released by the artists shows that those conditions certainly weren't ideal. Al-Badri is seen with the modified Kinect strapped to her chest as she circles around the bust's display case, the device occasionally revealed when she lifts up a blue scarf. The artist says the data was captured over the course of two days, making up six hours of scanning time, but wouldn't be drawn on the exact method used to ensure all angles were captured. The data she eventually released is extraordinarily detailed, but al-Badri's movement in the video seems too erratic to ensure a good quality final image, the artist regularly hiding the Kinect behind material as other museum patrons walk past.

The museum had its own scan done in 2008

But if these experts are right, and The Other Nefertiti wasn't captured by a video game controller stashed in a coat, how then did the artists get their hands on the Egyptian queen's head without breaking her out of her case? They could have simply scanned one of the museum's replica busts, and got lucky with some of the more fine details, but a more logical answer might come from 2008. That was the year the Neues Museum commissioned its own 3D scan of Nefertiti's bust, and the final images — created by a company called TrigonArt — looks mightily similar to the one the artists released last year.

"Of course a scan of the same thing looks the same," al-Badri says. But while she maintains that she and her co-conspirator pilfered the image from right under museum guards' noses, al-Badri has left the door open for other interpretations. "Maybe it was a server hack, a copy scan, an inside job, the cleaner, a hoax," the artist told Hyperallergic. "It can be all of this, it can be everything." However she did it, two Other Nefertitis are back in Egypt now — one in the American University in Cairo, and one buried under the sands that the 3,000-year-old queen once ruled.