Skip to main content

The great Kinect art heist

Here's A Thing.

Watch on YouTube

In October 2015 Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles walked into the Neues Museum of Berlin and together stole one of the world's most priceless artefacts: the bust of Queen Nefertiti. And, incredibly, they claim to have used Kinect to do it. It was the older model too, for the Xbox 360.

Because, yes, although the bust itself remained safely in place behind a tall box of bulletproof glass in the museum, the pair managed to walk out with an incredibly detailed 3D scan with nobody the wiser.

A scan they would later release to the world, for free, without the museum's consent.

But... Kinect... seriously?

The same hardware we used to play Fable: The Journey is responsible for a scan that looks as good as this?

We've been playing around with the scan ourselves.

And hang on, how do you even do a secret scan with one of these things. What are the logistics there? Do you strap a Kinect to your chest and hide it under a big coat?

Well, yes actually. That's exactly what they did. Here's a video, filmed by Jan Nikolai, in which Nora is hiding the device behind her scarf as she circles around the Nefertiti Bust.

This took a lot of preparation, I'm told. Not only did they need a bespoke mobile setup to power the scanner and record the data they were collecting, but the museum doesn't even allow the public to take photographs of Nefertiti - imagine what they'd make of this.

This meant the pair had to visit the museum beforehand and carefully monitor the patrol patterns of the guards working there. Two of them remained in the room itself, they noted, walking back and forth. And there were a further two that would check in on the room at regular intervals but then turn around and leave. That was an important gap to take advantage of.

The heist itself was done on a Sunday, as it was one of the busiest days of the week for the museum and all of those extra bodies in the room helped cover Nora and Jan Nikolai as they got to work. It took almost an entire day of scanning for the duo to get what they needed and one of their biggest concerns was that the guards may think they were spending an unusual amount of time admiring Nefertiti. This meant they needed to keep leaving for a coffee and a break, before then returning to continue scanning.

Somehow, they got away with it. But why do it in the first place? Why take such a risk? And here's an interesting question on top of those: why have they been so utterly public about the whole thing since? A simple answer might be that they're artists and they've since used the scan to create a replica which they've then exhibited. But what they did was not entirely legal. So why haven't they chosen to hide behind anonymity? Instead they revealed their scan to the world during their own panel at the largest hacker conference in Europe. And talk about witnesses - there was a live audience watching as these two admitted to their crimes.

Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles standing in front of 'The Other Nefertiti'.

And for this episode of Here's A Thing, I've spoken in detail and on-the-record with Jan Nikolai about his role in all of this. Why is it that they're not worried about the museum pursuing legal action? How have they seemingly gotten away with it all?

The answer to that question lies in the history of the piece they chose to scan. It was not just picked at random. Believed to be more than 3000 years old, this bust portrays Queen Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten. She's was an incredibly important figure, with some scholars believing she ruled alongside her husband as co-regent for a time and perhaps even claimed the title of Pharaoh herself following his death.

And yet, as the geography buffs amongst you will have already noticed: the Nefertiti Bust is housed in the Neues Museum, in the city of Berlin, which is in Germany, not Egypt. How did that happen?

Well that really depends on who you ask, but here's what we do know: the bust was discovered by a team of German archaeologists in Egypt in 1912 and about a month later, there are records of a meeting between the lead archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt and an Egyptian official in which they decide on which archeological finds now belong to Germany and which must be handed over to Egypt. The bust, they decide, shall leave for Europe.

Ludwig Borchardt (third from the right) and his team of archaeologists.

And this is where things get messy, because for the next decade or so, the existence of the Nefertiti bust is kept a secret at Borchardt's request, until 1924 when it's eventually revealed at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. At this point, Egypt immediately requests its return and Germany declines. The bust has remained a sore point between the two nations ever since.

Alright that's a nice history lesson, but how does any of that help our digital art thieves?

"We actually felt quite safe," explained Nelles, "because we knew we can't only leave this in the realm of a law case, but we have to transform it to a political case. Because what we have done is ethical. From this perspective, we are on the right side and we can defend this. We have a strong backbone if we create a public audience, we go out to the newspapers and we reach out. Then, for us, it is much more safe."

The two artists knew that if the museum pursued legal action, it wouldn't just be a story about the artists having unlawfully scanned an object in a museum. No, it might start with that, but it would very quickly turn into a much, much larger conversation: who should own the bust of Nefertiti? Germany? Egypt? Both? Neither?

And that, according to Jan Nikolai is the greater purpose of their work. It's about challenging the idea of ownership when it comes to culture. It's about reminding us that museums profit from being the custodians of our history - the Nefertiti bust has immense value in terms of tourism for Berlin, the museum also licenses its use and sells its own replicas at 1300 euros a pop.

"There are two reasons why they feel threatened," said Nelles. "One is an economic reason: they won't be able to profit. They are profiting now by licensing and to give access. And the other reason is for their interpretational sovereignty. They have the right to tell the story."

Although the bust was discovered in incredible condition, the Queen's left eye was never found.

Interestingly, the artists don't believe it's simply a case of returning the bust to Egypt either. They exhibited their own replica, created using the 3D scan, in Cairo shortly after the heist itself - finally the Nefertiti bust had returned home, in some form at least. During this exhibition, I'm told by Jan Nikolai, the pair were given the option to hand over their replica to the Egyptian ministry of culture as a gift.

They declined, deciding that actually their message wasn't about the dispute between Germany and Egypt; it was about whether or not these historical items should belong to the state or to the people. So they buried it in the desert just outside of Cairo instead.

But there's one final wrinkle in this story. Once news of this heist started to spread and particularly after publications like the New York Times picked it up, a secondary debate began. Not about culture, or ownership, or colonialism, or museums. No, it was a debate about Kinect.

You see, the 3D scanning community had some doubts about whether or not Kinect, which usually produces fairly ill-defined scans that look like this, could in fact, create something as exquisitely detailed as the scan released by Nora and Jan Nikolai.

"If you look at the model that they posted," said 3D scanning expert, Fred Kahl, "there's no way it could have been done with a Kinect. There's way too high a level of detail. It's possible to generate scans using photogrammetry and maybe that might be more in line with what's there. But honestly, it seems more like a really high-quality laser scan."

Then there's the issue of the glass case, which would likely cause issues for the Kinect's infrared laser projector, and how exactly did they manage to scan the top of the bust? Did Nora remove the Kinect from her coat and then hold it a higher angle - that seems unlikely.

Until now, the pair has mostly stuck to their story, despite speculation that they may have somehow acquired the museum's own 3D scans of the bust via a hack or from someone inside the institution. But more than two years after the heist, are they ready to come clean? I asked Jan Nikolai.

"Officially we claim to have scanned the bust at the museum at this point," said Nelles. "But frankly speaking, I can tell you that this was part of the process to acquire the data. We have combined technologies. We have not only done the scan with the Kinect, but you can use the data of the Kinect for certain parts of the measurements and then you combine other data that you acquire through other methods. This leads to this kind of high resolution, high poly dataset."

What I love about these two artists is that even this confusion over how the scan was obtained has now become part of their work. If you ask them why they lied about using Kinect, they'll tell you that they've created a narrative that suits their purpose. Just like the Neues Museum before them, they've framed the story about how they acquired the bust of Nefertiti to suit their own needs. You've got to hand it to them, they know how to talk the talk.

And there we are. A story about Ancient Egyptian history, the role of museums in the 21st century and awkward international politics. In the middle of it all, somehow, is Microsoft's Kinect. The Xbox One may not have wanted you in the end, old friend, but maybe the art world does.

Read this next