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How Two Artists Pulled Off A Brilliant Heist Using Just A 3-D Scanner

They stole nothing—but left with an unprecedented 3-D model of an Egyptian artifact that's been in Germany since 1913.

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Inside Berlin's Neues Museum, two museum attendants guard the entrance to the room that holds the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti, while two more flank the glass-encased sculpture to prohibit visitors from taking photos. That's four guards total, none of whom noticed when artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles spent three hours one Sunday in October scanning the sculpture with a hacked Kinect. In January, the German artists released the data online and created a 3-D printed polymer resin replica of the piece that now resides in the American University in Cairo.

Despite its heist movie beginnings, Al-Badri and Nelles's The Other Nefertiti, is at its heart a conceptual art piece concerned with the debate over art ownership and access.

For years, Queen Nefertiti has been the subject of dispute between Germany and Egypt, where the 3,500-year-old bust originated. The piece has been in Germany since 1913, but Egyptian officials say she was brought to Germany illegally and have demanded her return. Al-Badri and Nelles chose Nefertiti as the subject of their project in an effort to shed light on institutional transparency when it comes to the objects a museum owns as a result of colonialism. The Neues Museum, for example, doesn't provide any context for how Queen Nefertiti arrived at the museum.

"Our approach is to go back and be clear about the unique art and where it comes from," says Nelles. "The reason of why it is where it is has to be transparent. This is at least the starting point."

To start that dialogue, Al-Badri and Nelles created what they claim to be the most precise replica of the bust ever made to be displayed in Egypt—and also released that 3-D dataset online as a torrent. The information is open access under free domain, available for anyone to download use. Since they leaked the information, thousands of people have downloaded the torrent and Egyptian universities have asked to use it for academic purposes.

But one institution the artists have not heard from is the Neues Museum, which they believe knows about their project but has yet to respond. The artists say their critique of the museum is meant to be constructive, rather than merely pointing a finger. Their goal is to open up the topic for discussion and appeal to the museum to make its collection open-access. "Museums administer culture," says Nelles. "[The Neues Museum] is often complaining, saying, 'we have huge collection we don’t know what to do with it all.' The open community is waiting to share on a public domain" to give people worldwide access to museums' collections. "Collections are financed publicly," Al-Badri adds. "We have paid."

While the artists champion the use of digital technology to reproduce works of art, they are wary about efforts currently underway to preserve artifacts destroyed by ISIS using with digital recreation, such as the reconstruction of Palmyra arch in London's Trafalgar Square in London and Times Square in New York. In fact, they point to parallels between these projects and the 19th- and early 20th-century history that originally brought now-disputed artifacts to Europe to "protect" them.

"It's this idea of 'In a time of war, we need to bring artifacts to the West," that's concerning, says Nelles. "We can still show copies or digital embodiments in the Western museums to visitors if there is an audience for that," but ultimately, the artists want individuals and institutions to use technology to repatriate objects to the communities from which they came.

All Images: Jan Nikolai Nelles/Nora Al-Badri

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