Adventures in amber - Rebuilt Russian Amber Room to be unveiled

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

TSARSKOYE SELO, Russia -- Elaborately carved amber panels, in shades ranging from butter yellow to dark red, stretch up 26-foot walls. Gilded parrots perch on candle holders, their tiny tilted heads reflected in mirrors. Mosaics of semiprecious stones sparkle, adding to the sensation of being enclosed in an oversized jewelry box.

Russia's legendary Amber Room, which vanished after German troops looted it from an imperial palace during World War II, makes a dazzling reappearance this month after a painstaking nearly quarter-century reconstruction.

"I think never in Russian history has anyone had to restore such a unique historical object literally out of nothing," Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi said Tuesday, announcing the project's completion.

At the end of May, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will open the room to 47 fellow heads of state at St. Petersburg's 300th birthday bash. In June, it will be unveiled to the public.

Over the years, the lost chamber -- a Prussian gift to St. Petersburg's founder, Czar Peter the Great -- ignited imaginations and inspired a series of treasure hunts.

Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I gave the czar the elaborately carved chamber in 1716. In exchange, he received his wish: 55 very tall Russian soldiers.

In 1941, German troops who had invaded the Soviet Union reached the suburbs of St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad. Occupying the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, a one-time Russian imperial residence, they dismantled the Amber Room and took it to the German city of Koenigsburg.

After the war, the victorious Soviet Union annexed the city and renamed it Kaliningrad. However, by the time the Soviet Army got there, the Amber Room had disappeared, believed destroyed in Allied bombing or hidden away.

Some said the treasure was buried in a silver mine not far from Berlin. Others speculated it was hidden on the shores of the Baltic. Still others went as far as South America searching for the room, worth an estimated $100 million to $250 million.

In 1979, the Soviet government initiated reconstruction of the room, allocating about $8 million. Germany's Ruhrgas, the biggest importer of Russian gas, joined the project in 1999 and donated $3.5 million, helping guarantee its completion.

The culture minister, who presented the restored chamber to reporters Tuesday with Ruhrgas executive board member Achim Middelschulte, said the project had become "a symbol of German-Russian understanding and friendship."

Many of the approximately 30 artisans on the project have devoted the better part of their working lives to it, hunched over microscopes to etch tiny designs into the amber, inhaling amber dust. The reconstruction used some six tons of the stone.

"This work ... became the raison-d'etre for many of us. And now that it's almost over, many of the most skillful amber carvers are at a loss," said Alexander Krylov, who joined the workshop in 1981.

Even before the work started, it took 11 years just to research the room and reinvent old craftsmanship techniques, said Tatyana Zharkova, spokeswoman for the Tsarskoye Selo museum.

"From the pictures the experts obtained, one could tell that the room was made of amber of at least 13 various tints, but nobody knew exactly what those tints were" from the black-and-white photographs, she said.

Experts worked off modern black-and-white photographs of amber of various tints and compared them with prewar pictures, helping them draw conclusions about which shade was used in which panels.

The responsibility for deciding the coloring was given to a single craftsman, Krylov, for the sake of consistency.

"We all know what is blue and what is yellow. But when it concerns hues, everyone may have his own perception on how dark or light it is. So, in order to keep all the coloring in harmony, they decided to rely on one and the same man," Zharkova said.

Meanwhile, the quest for the original marched on. Treasure-hunters searched caves, jails, churches, salt mines, tunnels and bunkers. In 1967, the Soviet government initiated its own search commission. It shut it down in 1984, saying the investigation was fruitless.

Only two components of the original room have been found.

One was a chest of drawers, which a Berlin woman reported owning in 1997 after seeing a television documentary on the Amber Room.

The other was a mosaic, part of a series celebrating the five senses, which a lawyer was trying to sell the same year in Bremen, Germany, for a client. The client's father had accompanied the wartime convoy to Koenigsburg as a German officer. He said he had no idea how his father got the mosaic, titled "Smell and Touch."

By the time it popped up, a copy of the mosaic had already been completed in the Tsarskoye Selo workshop.

Alexander Kedrinsky, one of the few surviving people who researched the original Amber Room before World War II, said the new chamber was an improvement over the old.

"The original Amber Room didn't look that impressive really," he admitted. "It was decaying, had undergone two renovations and needed another."

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