- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

TSARSKOYE SELO, Russia — The tale of Russia’s legendary Amber Room has all the makings of a Hollywood movie: war, priceless art, royalty. And like with all big-budget pictures, there are financing problems.

The Amber Room, a chamber in Catherine’s Palace in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, outside St. Petersburg, was covered with pieces of intricately carved amber art arranged on the walls in ostentatious Baroque designs. The amber was stolen during World War II and never seen again.

But after 24 years of work, Russian experts paid partly by German funds have rebuilt the room in time for St. Petersburg’s 300th anniversary, which is being celebrated this summer.

The room will be opened to the public in the coming weeks. It costs roughly $11 for foreigners to visit Catherine’s Palace.

“The word ‘restoration’ doesn’t fit,” said Tatiana Zharkova, head of the Amber Room project at the Tsarskoye Selo Museum. “There was nothing here. It was an empty hall.”

The Amber Room was a gift to the Russian ruler Peter the Great from King Frederick William I of Prussia in 1716. Originally, it was about a third the size of the current room, which has an area of about 1,033 square feet.

As German troops approached the outskirts of St. Petersburg in 1941, many works of art were hidden or shipped throughout the Soviet Union to keep them from the Nazis.

But moving the Amber Room was impossible. It was desperately in need of restoration, and any movement of the heavy pieces — some weighed 881 pounds — would destroy them.

So the Amber Room was left in Catherine’s Palace, and when the Germans arrived they promptly stripped the artistic treasure bare and shipped the pieces to what was then the German territory of Koenigsburg, now Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea. After the war, the art works were never seen again, provoking endless stories of the Amber Room’s fate.

Some believe that the elaborate amber carvings were put on a boat that later sank. Others speculate that the pieces were shipped to Argentina or the Czech Republic, or were destroyed during the bombing of Koenigsburg, or that the Germans threw them down a well to keep them from the Soviets.

In 1979, Soviet authorities decided to begin rebuilding the room, working from one color photo of the original, a few black-and-white photos and interviews with people who used to work there.

One of the biggest challenges was deciding on the color of the amber. There are 350 different shades of amber, ranging from colorless to dark blue. The most common color is a yellowish hue similar to honey.

But amber changes color as it ages and is exposed to sunlight. To make the amber look as it did before the war, when it had been hanging for years, the team decided to use a chemical process that changed the amber’s color, making it richer and darker.

“We say amber is a jewelry stone for one life, because it has one color for 60 years,” said Ulf Erichson, director of the German Amber Museum and a member of the German-Russian commission that monitors the quality of the reconstruction.

The windows on the completed room will be covered with a protective layer to keep out ultraviolet light to preserve the amber.

Another problem was finding the money to finish the project. During Soviet times, amber was cheap and plentiful because it was quarried from a Soviet-owned mine.

But after the Soviet Union’s collapse, amber and everything else associated with the restoration project was much more expensive at a time when the government had less money.

When asked what the biggest challenge was in re-creating the amber room, Vladimir Dolgachev, who has worked on the project for 20 years, said, “getting paid.”

During the early 1990s, museum workers, like many government workers in Russia, went for long periods without paychecks.

The cost of amber skyrocketed. Amber can cost $300 to $1,000 per kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, depending on the quality. About 20 percent of the purchased amber is of suitable quality to use in the Amber Room.

With such prohibitive costs, work all but halted until a German company, Ruhrgas AG, decided in 1999 to fund the rest of the reconstruction. Officials at Ruhrgas say the gesture is an important contribution to art and to improving relations between Germany and Russia.

“The Amber Room was given in friendship,” said Astrid Zimmermand, a spokeswoman for Ruhrgas, which buys natural gas from Russia. “It was taken during war by the German military, and now it is given back in friendship.”

The cost of the Amber Room restoration came to $11.35 million — $3.5 of which was given by Ruhrgas after 1999, mostly to buy amber and pay the restorers.

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