[Update, March 15, 2016: After my investigation was reported by multiple news outlets, including Smithsonian Magazine, Popular Science, InstapunditThe Daily Dot, Kotaku, Digital Trends, Fusion,  Gizmodo, Hyperallergic, MentalflossBoingBoing, and ARTFIXdaily, The New York Times was compelled to publish a follow-up story: Nefertiti 3-D Scanning Project in Germany Raises Doubts.]

[Update, November 13, 2019: After a three-year FOIA effort, I was able to obtain the Neues Museum’s original 3D scan of Nefertiti. That story is here.]

March 8, 2016

The New York Times’ March 1, 2016 story “Swiping a Priceless Antiquity … With a Scanner and a 3-D Printer” by Charly Wilder tells how two German artists made a surreptitious, unauthorized 3D scan of the iconic bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

The artists, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, make a case for repatriating artifacts to their native countries and use Nefertiti as their focal point. They also point out that the Neues Museum has made its own high-quality 3D scan of the bust, and that the museum should share that data with the public. As a protest, they released their own scan to the public, and the quality of their scan is extraordinary.

The story has received a great deal of attention and Al-badri and Nelles have earned much praise for their efforts to digitally repatriate important cultural artifacts. Unfortunately, there are serious problems with their story and The Times’ account.

The Times reports that artists Al-badri and Nelles used a modified Microsoft Kinect scanner hidden under clothing to gather the scan data of the bust. Following the Times story, there have been several independent and exhaustive descriptions of how their scan data simply cannot have been gathered in the way Al-badri and Nelles claim. For the specifics, I refer you to analysis by Paul Docherty and Fred Kahl. They correctly point out that the Kinect scanner has fundamentally low resolution and accuracy, and that even under ideal conditions, it simply cannot acquire data as detailed as what the artists have made available. The artists’ account simply cannot be true.

I read about this story when it was first reported on February 19 in Hyperallergic, and I too was immediately skeptical. The model that the artists published is of such high quality that I initially thought the scan had to be either the museum’s own unpublished scan, or that the artists had scanned a high-quality replica and were passing it off as a scan of the original.

I soon realized that these two theories dovetailed with each other when I began looking for the highest quality Nefertiti replica I could find. My search led me to the museum’s own replicas, and the museum’s own 3D scan: I found TrigonArt, the German scanning company who, in 2008, produced a high-quality scan of Nefertiti for the Neues Museum.

TrigonArt is rightfully proud of their work, and their website includes a page showing a 360-degree orientable and zoomable preview of the scan they made of Nefertiti for Neues. I encourage you to take a look for yourself and compare it to the artists’ own scan. Even in this limited preview viewer, opening it up full screen and zooming in, you can see that every feature—including super-fine submillimeter details—appear to exactly match the model that the artists released.

Below you can see two simple comparisons I made of the artists’ scan and screen captures from TrigonArt’s viewer:

20160306 Neues Scan vs Heist Scan 1
20160306 Neues Scan vs Heist Scan 2

In my opinion, it’s highly unlikely that two independent scans of the bust would match so closely. It seems even less likely that a scan of a replica would be such a close match. I believe the model that the artists released was in fact derived from the Neues Museum’s own scan.

On Friday, March 4, I spoke with a representative from TrigonArt. I had assumed that they would have already looked into this matter, but the representative told me that he had only just returned from weeks of scanning the Nubian pyramids in Meroë, Sudan a few days prior and had not had a chance to examine this story.

I asked him explicitly, and he confirmed he’d never heard of the artists before and had never worked with them. I told him I suspected they had acquired Neues’ data and encouraged him to make his own comparison.

The TrigonArt representative was friendly and seemed genuinely interested in knowing the truth of the matter, but he also explained that he is highly constrained with what he is allowed to do with the data and that he takes his responsibility to his clients seriously. He would likely not weigh in on this story in any way. TrigonArt has a professional obligation to defer to the museum, and I completely understand—I follow the same policy with my own customers’ projects and data.

But TrigonArt’s position and the Neues’ own refusal to elaborate on the quality of their data compared to the artists’ mean that at this point only the artists themselves can explain the origin of their data.

But there’s a bigger problem…

The most damning technical takedown of Al-badri and Nelles’ scanning methods comes from All Things 3D’s Mike Balzer and Chris Kopack who managed to get an interview with Nelles on February 26, 2016, four days before the Times story was published. In addition to Balzer’s thorough demonstration of the scanning equipment’s limitations, he also elicited repeated assertions from Nelles that he simply cannot vouch for his own scan.

Nelles appears to be a completely nontechnical person and describes how an unnamed partner gave him the equipment and told him how to use it. He explains that after the surreptitious scan in the museum, Nelles delivered the device back to this unnamed partner who did all of the processing. Nelles expresses his own surprise at the quality of the model his anonymous partner provided him. By Nelles’ own account, he has absolutely no idea what—if anything—was done with the data and is in effect simply passing along the model he was given by his anonymous partner, who has since left Europe.

On Monday, March 7 the Times reporter, Charly Wilder, confirmed to me that she had had “zero contact” with the artists’ unnamed partner. That’s unfortunate, because this story puts many people’s professional reputations in jeopardy, calls into question the reputation of a major institution, and museum practices in general, and the unnamed partner is now the only one who truly knows how this data was produced and where it came from.

In my opinion, both the artists, Al-badri and Nelles, the Times reporter, and Times readers, have all been deceived, one way or another, by an unnamed source.

All of this confusion stems from bad institutional practices regarding secrecy: The Neues Museum is hoarding 3D scans that by all rights it should share with the public, and The New York Times has allowed anonymous sources into the chain of custody of the facts of its story.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, digitizing artwork radically increases the importance of provenance—where artifacts and information come from, who controlled it, and who edited it. Museums are in the best position to produce and publish 3D data of their works and provide authoritative context and commentary about the work, the art, the data, and what it means. I know from first-hand experience that people want this data, and want to put it to use, and as I explained to LACMA in 2014, they will get it, one way or another. When museums refuse to provide it, the public is left in the dark and is open to having bogus or uncertain data foisted upon it.

Museums should not be repositories of secret knowledge, but unfortunately, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Neues is not alone in keeping their scan data to themselves. There are many influential museums, universities, and private collections that have extremely high quality 3D data of important works, but they are not sharing that data with the public.

For example:

This is a very small sampling. There are thousands more like these.

I’m entirely sympathetic to the underlying cause of liberating artwork and making it available to everyone. I believe that with 3D scanning and 3D printing, private collectors and museums have an unprecedented opportunity to recast themselves as living engines of cultural creation. They can digitize their three dimensional collections and project them outward into the public realm to be adapted, multiplied, and remixed, and they should do this because the best place to celebrate great art is in a vibrant, lively, and anarchic popular culture. The world’s back catalog of art should be set free to run wild in our visual and tactile landscape, and whether it turns up lit in pixels on our screens, rematerialized in our living rooms, or embedded in our architecture or clothing, it’s all to the good.

I admit to being jealous of what Al-badri and Nelles have accomplished as far as their PR effort goes. When I did the same thing in 2012 with the most prized piece from the controversial Elgin marbles, and Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory, and more, I had hopes that I would jump-start this conversation myself. I’ve even hoped that museum insiders might leak data to me, although it never occurred to me to invent a cover story.

It’s unfortunate that this story was based on a falsehood. With any luck, though, this will all be for the best, and there will be increased scrutiny of museums’ custody of data, and it will lead to increased public demand for museums to make their 3D data freely available to the public.

Cosmo Wenman

P.S. I’ll be speaking on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 at the REAL2016 convention in San Francisco on the topic of digitizing artwork and the importance of museums making their data available to the public. I’ll post a video here when it’s available. Here’s the video, please share it: