A decision by German Egyptologists to lend a 3,000-year-old bust of the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti for an allegedly "pornographic" exhibit at this year's Venice Biennale has provoked a blistering row between Berlin and Cairo.
The dispute deepened yesterday when Egypt demanded the immediate return of the priceless bust, which has been on show at Berlin's Egyptian museum for almost 90 years. Egypt then declared Dietrich Wildung, the museum's director, persona non grata.
Nefertiti, which means "beauty has arrived", was the wife of the ancient Egyptian ruler Akhenaten, pharaoh in about 1340BC. Her bust, with one eye missing, was discovered by German archaeologists in 1912. A year later it was taken to Berlin, where it has remained one of the city's foremost cultural attractions.
Faruk Husni, Egypt's Minister of Culture, insisted yesterday that the bust was "no longer safe in German hands and must be returned home". He condemned the use of the bust in the Biennale exhibit as "disgusting" and said it was an "insult".
Egypt's anger stems from a decision by Berlin's museum to allow a group of Hungarian artists, called Kish Warsaw, to make a video film of the bust, which shows the head of Nefertiti superimposed on what at first sight appears to be the torso of a naked woman cast in bronze.
To make the video, called Nefertiti's Body, the bust was removed from its glass cabinet for a few hours last month and placed on the bronze torso.
The only people present were Mr Wildung, the two artists and a handful of assistants. "I cannot understand what all the fuss is about," Mr Wildung said. "I personally removed the bust from its case. The whole atmosphere was more like the veneration of Nefertiti than an insult to her. Everyone was awed into silence," he added.
Mr Wildung maintains that the torso on which the bust is superimposed is not naked but covered in a thintransparent robe, which is visible on the original limestone statue. He conceded that in the video no clothing was apparent.
Berlin is unlikely to agree to part with one of its most treasured artefacts. The city authorities argue that an agreement signed between Imperial Germany and Egypt in 1913 gives the bust's German finders the right to keep it for ever.
Mr Wildung has accused the Egyptian side of overreacting. "I receive requests from artists who want to make use of Nefertiti almost monthly. I set the highest standards and I have only allowed it to be used once," he said.
The Venice Biennale begins on Monday.