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She has been described as one of the most beautiful women of all time, with looks compared to those of Audrey Hepburn. Her image decorates thousands of tourist T- shirts and souvenirs.

Queen Nefertiti (c.1370 B.C.-1330 B.C.) is one of the most famous figures of the ancient world, and all because of a single work of art: a limestone bust owned by the museums of Berlin. Hers is one of the best-known faces in art, enjoying almost Mona Lisa status. Last week it was reported that two separate authors, the Swiss historian Henri Stierlin and Berlin-based Erdogan Ercivan, believe it is an early-20th-century work.

I must admit I wasn’t surprised. World famous though the bust is, it is an object about which I have long had niggling doubts. It does not, to use art-world jargon, seem “right.”

To my admittedly non-specialist eye, “Nefertiti” does not look much like any other ancient Egyptian sculpture. On the other hand, it does have an early 1900s feel: somewhere between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, just right for the moment it was first seen publicly, in 1924. Puzzlingly, one eye is missing, which apparently was never placed in the otherwise finished work.

Do such worries matter? After all, scientific tests support the authenticity of Nefertiti and the director of Berlin’s Egyptology Museum has dismissed Stierlin’s theories.

Perhaps they do. In 1985, after 14 months of technical investigation, the Getty Museum was convinced that a certain statue was an ancient Greek original from the 6th century B.C., and purchased it for $7 million. Then a series of scholars looked at it and immediately suspected it was a fake. The label now reads “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery.”

Sometimes, fakes get into prominent art-historical positions. One of the Vermeers forged by Han van Meegeren in the 1930s was regarded with such reverence that it was displayed behind a red rope to keep the crowds at bay at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

Van Meegeren’s Vermeers were both supposed to be extremely early works, of which they were the only examples — so there was nothing to compare them with. In a way, that’s true of Nefertiti too; an exceptional item from an aberrant period, the reign of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton.

There is, too, a bit of mystery about the origin of Nefertiti (as there usually is with fakes). The sculpture is supposed to have been found in December 1912 by a team of German archaeologists at the site of the court sculptor’s workshop at Amarna on the Nile in Middle Egypt.

Under the agreement by which they worked, the Egyptian museum service had first pick of the Germans’ finds — but the Egyptian representative, a French archaeologist named Gustave Lefebvre, selected another piece, not Nefertiti.

The sculpture didn’t go on show with the other finds from the workshop in Berlin in 1913. When it was finally displayed in 1924, the Egyptian authorities called “foul” and demanded it back. There were suspicions that the bust had been hidden or covered with dirt so that Lefebvre didn’t see it properly.

Perhaps, however, it wasn’t there for him to see because it hadn’t yet been made.

Stierlin suggests it was produced as a copy by the archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, and so admired by a German prince that it was embarrassing to admit it wasn’t original. According to the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, Ercivan thinks it was modeled on Borchardt’s wife.

If so, Frau Borchardt’s face is now one of the most celebrated in world history.

Martin Gayford
Bloomberg

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