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<nettime> Cosmo Wenman > The Nefertiti 3D Scan Heist Is A Hoax

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The Nefertiti 3D Scan Heist Is A Hoax

Posted on March 8, 2016 by cosmowenman

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scan had to be either the museum's own unpublished scan, or that the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 Meroƫ, 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

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

For example:

	Metropolitan Museum of Art: Berninis, Buddhas, Michelangelos and
	who-knows-what more

	Stanford University and the Galleria dell'Accademia's Digital
	Michelangelo Project, with a billion-polygon 3D scan of David and
	several others

	Stanford University and Cantor Arts Center's scans of numerous Rodin
	bronze hands, Inside Rodin's Hands: Art, Technology, and Surgery

	3D scan of Donatello's David, authorized by the Bargello and the
	Superintendent of Florence Cultural Heritage

	The Acropolis Museum's 3D scans of the Parthenon friezes

	The British Museum's Assyrian reliefs

	Art Institute of Chicago's laser scans of Matisse's bronze Back series

	Baltimore Museum of Art: Rodin'sThe Thinker, as-yet-unpublished despite
	the announcement

	Downloadable 3D scans from the J. Paul Getty Museum

	The Louvre and Konica Minolta's 2005 3D survey of theVenus de Milo, now
	devolved to a totally defunct, spam-filled project website

	The Louvre and Nintendo's 2013 3D captures ofVenus de Milo, Winged
	Victory, and more, locked up inside a game-console/tour guide: "There
	are a lot of theories about the missing arms of the Venus de Milo,
	right? I said, 'Let's create all of those,' but I was told, 'No...'"

	The Louvre's 2013-14 3D scan ofWinged Victory, part of a multi-million
	dollar conservation project for which they solicited public donations

	University of Leicester's 3D scans of Richard III's remains

	Michelangelo's bronze Panther Riders, in a private collection

	The Van Gogh Museum's 3D scans of Almond Blossom, Sunflowers, The
	Harvest, Wheatfield under Thunderclouds, and Boulevard de Clichy

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

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

P.S. I'll be speaking on Tuesday, March 8 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.

Cosmo Wenman


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