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Russia: Hopes Dashed For Rediscovery Of Amber Chamber

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 16 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Germans got excited this week -- briefly -- by the news that one piece of a Russian cultural treasure missing since the last days of the war had turned up in Bremen.

Many hoped that the rest of the treasure might also be found, possibly to be used as a negotiating instrument to obtain the return of artifacts looted from Germany by the Red Army. Russia is holding more than 200,000 German art treasures. Recently, the Russian legislature declared them to be state property and not subject to being returned.

But German hopes for a new lever to use on the Russians has collapsed. The history of this single piece suggests that it won't provide a clue to the whereabouts of the remainder. So there evidently isn't the hoped-for new tool for bargaining with Moscow.

The lost treasure that momentarily seemed to be resurfacing is known as the Amber Chamber. The Prussian King Friedrich I presented it to Czar Peter the Great in 1717. It was an entire room panelled in ornately-carved amber -- a hard, yellowish-brown translucent resin, prized for use in jewelry.

The chamber was installed in the royal palace, Zarskoje Selo, near St. Petersburg, where it was considered one of the wonders of the modern world. Commercially, it would be valued at roughly $170 million. But something so rare and historically rich actually would be priceless.

Like tens of thousands of other cultural treasures, the Amber Chamber was a war victim. German invaders in 1941 dismantled it and took it to Konigsberg in east Prussia (now Kaliningrad). Some think it was destroyed in a fire in the bitter fighting at the end of the war. Others believe that German soldiers took it and hid it to keep it from recapture by advancing Russians.

It has become a legend among German cultural experts. Its imminent discovery has been reported 130 times, four in 1995 -- each time arousing immense intrest.

What turned up this week in Bremen was one of four mosaics of Florentine marble which were built into a wall of the room in 1755. The mosaic measures 55 cm by 70.5 cm. It depicts two couples in a garden landscape. The director of the Institute for Prussian Palaces and Gardens, Burkhardt Gores, and other German and Russian experts, have confirmed its authenticity.

This time there was cause for hope. The mosaic is undoubtedly genuine and the circumstances of its appearance prompted hope that it was part of a hoard of stolen goods which might include the rest of the chamber. But experts now agree that this is a mosaic which is known to have disappeared even before the rest of the Amber Chamber arrived in Konigsberg.

The vehicle carrying it broke away from a convoy from St. Petersburg during an air raid and for some reason never got to Konigsberg. According to this week's police report from Bremen, the mosaic remained in the possession of the driver, who hung it on the wall of his living room after the war. When he died in 1985, his son threw it into the attic where it remained until 1990 when he saw a television program and realized what it was.