The Arts

A Wonder, Reborn

Amber Room, Catherine's Palace
Frederich Spaeth, Chairman of German energy company Ruhrgas' Executive Board, touches a wall in the Amber Room in Tsarskoye Selo, Sept. 6, 1999. Ruhrgas donated US$3.5 million to restore the landmark (Photo: AFP).

Rushing is not his style; “that harms our work,” says Vladimir Mezentsev. He should know. In Catherine’s Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin)
near St. Petersburg, he coordinates a 50-member team. By May 2003, they should have completed a perfect copy of the legendary Amber Room. The long-lost original, with wall decoration from the early 18th century, because of its precious material and the highly artistic carving has been celebrated more than once as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Re-creating something of that kind can take a lot of time. In this case it will have taken two decades.

For two and half years, the German energy company Ruhrgas has sponsored this resurrection. True, the firm from Essen is fond of sending out press releases that urge haste, with statements like: “The Russians are keenly aware of their deadline.” Still, even that does not get Mezentsev worked up. “We’ll get it done,” he says. Anything else would be shameful, he observes. When the city of St. Petersburg celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2003, the Amber Room is intended to be the main attraction. President Vladimir Putin wants to present the room to the public at the close of the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg next year, in the presence of other prominent political figures and, of course, a lot of cameras. Mezentsev and his colleagues, however, are more concerned about the time after the opening fanfare. “We’re looking forward to seeing the room finally finished after so many years of hard work. But many here are wondering whether they will still have work after that.”

The room itself, which is now more that two-thirds completed, will certainly profit from the mystique of the original. It was a gift in 1716 from the Prussian royal house to Russia, where it was later enhanced by four priceless Florentine mosaics—and it aroused the greed of the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. They dismantled the honey-yellow marvel “made in Prussia” in Catherine’s Palace and reassembled it in the Königsberg castle [in what is now Kaliningrad]. Toward the end of the war, the panels were packed away in crates—and have never been seen since. There is regularly speculation about where they ended up. Was the ensemble destroyed in the fire at the Königsberg castle, or did the Nazis hide it? If so, where? And what condition is it in today? Five years ago, when one of the mosaics showed up in Bremen and then a chest of drawers in Berlin, it was a huge sensation—but these have remained the only objects found.

At the end of April, Heinz Schön intends to publish a book on the “Mystery of the Amber Room”—and, in it, to prove where the ensemble is located. He sus-pects that it is still in Kaliningrad. Treasure hunters who were just as sure of their hunches, however, have already climbed down into mine tunnels in Saxony, while others believe the decorations to be located near Göttingen or even in France. But as yet, nothing has been proven.

The restorers, jewelers, and stonemasons in Tsarskoye Selo had to take their cues, over all these years, from pre-World War II photographs and a few amber fragments that may have broken off when the Germans carried out their organized plunder of art. Thousands of details have been copied, often with the help of a microscope, and carved to match, including exquisitely interwoven ornaments and whole genre scenes.

In 1979, Moscow decided on the reconstruction; in the 1980s the work site was set up. It has taken years for the craftsmen to become familiar with the old workmanship techniques. Never before in Russia had brittle amber been worked in this manner and on such a scale, says Marina Trufanova, the project’s assistant director.

There were other problems that almost led the plan to fail. A kilogram of amber costs an average of US$400, and many tons were needed. Particularly during the era of perestroika, money was short. Ruhrgas nearly withdrew its $3.5 million sponsorship of the project because Russia originally wanted to tax the aid payment.

“Today, we have enough amber at our disposal. Now we have mastered a highly refined and rare art. But what are we going to do with it in the future?” asks Trufanova. Many of the craftsmen in Tsarskoye Selo have lived for years with the single goal of restoring the Amber Room, she says.

“Does this mean the end?” Perhaps the project will continue, she hopes. She and her colleagues would gladly take on restoration projects, organize exhibits, and make amber souvenirs for the palace gift shop. For them, much depends on the success of the new Amber Room. Mezentsev is worried about being unable to offer any surprise at the opening; visitors have been able to follow the progress step by step. “Who is left to be astonished at the opening?” he asks.