Busted?

These artists say they snagged a priceless piece of art with a 3D scanner. But is it a hoax?

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Last week, the New York Times reported on a modern day, technological art heist. According to the Times, two artists snuck a camera and a Microsoft Kinect 3D scanner into the Neues Museum in Berlin and did a surreptitious scan of the 3,300 year old bust of Nefertiti. The artists put the purported results of the scan online in December, titled the “Other Nefertiti,” and called on the museum to return the original bust, which was unearthed by the Germans in 1912, to Egypt and display a 3D-printed replica in its place.

As one does these days, the artists, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, filmed their heist. But even with this video proof, experts in the 3D printing community are raising questions about whether the artists actually did what they claimed.

The scan posted by the artists was remarkable. Too remarkable actually, say 3D printing experts. The question of the Nefertiti scan’s authenticity was raised first by the German-language IT news site heise online in late February. On Tuesday, printing expert Cosmo Wenman called it a hoax.

When I asked Al-Badri and Nelles if they’d be willing to talk about the controversy, Al-Badri wrote that they “can’t provide…any more details like we already told others before.”

Paul Docherty, a researcher with 30 years of experience, who’s modeled the Bust of Nefertiti himself, was skeptical that the “very detailed” scan could’ve been achieved the way Al-Badri and Nelles said it was. Docherty outlined a number of potential problems. Al-Badri wore the Kinect strapped to her chest, hidden by a scarf, but the Kinect normally requires an in-wall power source; a large battery pack would’ve had to be improvised to power it, writes Docherty. Moreover, the bust is behind glass, which is a “major problem for the software to deal with.” The setup, for example, wouldn’t have allowed Al-Badri to scan the top of the bust.

Fred Kahl, another 3D printing expert who has “made over 10,000 Kinect scans,” told me on the phone that unless the device was entirely retrofitted, it wouldn’t be able to achieve the quality of scan Al-Badri and Nelles have provided.

This isn’t helped by Al-Badri and Nelles’ reticence to discuss the situation. When Nelles appeared on the All Things 3D podcast, he was cagey about the artists’ technique, claiming the scanning device was provided to them by “hacker friends,” and that the 3D scan data was produced by the same friends, who had subsequently left for New Zealand.

When I asked Al-Badri whether she could tell me anything about her and Nelles’ tech-savvy friends or put me in touch with them, she simply replied, “:-).”

There are a few other possibilities as to how the artists could’ve achieved the scan, which Kahl outlines on his blog. One is that, like Docherty, they used photogrammetry, “a technique of capturing images of the sculpture from a variety of angles” and converting those into a scan. Or they could have scanned a high-quality replica.

“[If] they managed to gain access to a high quality copy and scanned up very close then they could potentially create a detailed model,” said Kahl.

Yet another potential theory of Kahl’s is a little more cloak-and-dagger. “The last possibility and reigning theory is that Ms. Badri and Mr. Nelles elusive hacker partners are literally real hackers who stole a copy of the high resolution scan from the Museum’s servers,” Kahl writes.

If this were true, it would be wise for the artists not to talk about it as stealing the data would have legal consequences.

The frustrating part of the controvery is that it’s distracting from what’s otherwise a very good point: There are good arguments for repatriating artifacts. While it may make for a less compelling story than a clandestine scan, the idea that objects should be returned to their countries of origin and replaced with 3D-printed replicas is one we should seriously consider.