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Russia: German Firm Gives Millions To Restore Amber Room

A German energy company has offered to pay $3.5 million to reconstruct one of Russia's most famous treasures, St. Petersburg's Amber Room, which was stolen by the Nazis during World War II and believed to have been destroyed.

Munich, 19 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The offer to reconstruct the Amber Room comes from Ruhrgas, based in the northwestern German city of Essen. A spokesman told RFE/RL that the $3.5-million gift is a symbol of the company's good relations with Russia. Ruhrgas has imported natural gas from Russia for more than 25 years and is the biggest west European buyer of Russian gas.

The spokesman said the company wants the Amber Room returned to St. Petersburg by the year 2003 when the city marks its 300th anniversary. The coordinator of the project, Astrid Zimmermann, is now in St. Petersburg discussing the details. The spokesman said the company expects to sign the contract in St. Petersburg on September 6.

The Ruhrgas gift will enable Russian craftsmen to continue work on the reconstruction of the Amber Room, which began in 1979. About 40 percent has been completed, but recently the work has slowed because of a lack of money.

The Amber Room was described by art experts in the 1930s as the "most glorious work of amber art ever created." It was an entire room paneled with more than 100,000 pieces of the translucent fossilized resin, which had been carved into flowers, Prussian royal emblems and other designs. The room was a gift to Czar Peter the Great by King Frederick-William of Prussia in 1716. Peter had the room built into the royal palace near St. Petersburg.

Most modern experts decline to estimate its value, but some say that today it could be worth around $300 million.

The room was taken from St. Petersburg by German troops in 1941 and sent to Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsburg), in what was then east Prussia. It disappeared in April 1945 in the heavy fighting at the end of the war and is believed to have been destroyed in a fire.

German experts recently visited the workshops in St. Petersburg where the Amber Room is being reconstructed. More than 30 Russian craftsmen are engaged in cutting and decorating the amber and carefully fitting each piece into place on the panels that will form the room. Each piece is about the size of the palm of a hand. The work is being directed by Boris Igdalov.

The craftsmen work from photographs taken shortly before the Second World War when the Amber Room was to have been restored. Igdalov told the western experts that every kilogram of amber provides only about 150 grams of material that can be used in the reconstruction. Most of the amber comes from the Baltic coast.

The craftsmen are also replacing four mosaics of Florentine marble which the Czarina Catherine had placed in the walls of the Amber Room in 1755. They, too, are delicate works of art. One shows two couples in a garden landscape.

In this case, the craftsmen are helped in their reconstruction by having one of the original mosaics as a model. It surfaced in the German city of Bremen in May 1997 when it was offered secretly for sale by a pensioner who said he had received it from his father, who was a soldier in Russia during the war. It has been certified as authentic by German experts. It is believed to have been looted after the Amber Room was dismantled by German troops in St. Petersburg in 1941.

The $3.5-million Ruhrgas gift has prompted speculation that it may encourage Moscow to return some of the 200,000 German art treasures and 1.5 million valuable books taken by the Red Army to Russia at the end of the war. Last month, the Russian constitutional court declared that neither Germany nor any other country has any claim on these treasures. But Germany hopes that some of them may be returned as "gifts" in special circumstances.

Ruhrgas has declined to comment on the speculation and says only that its gift is a symbol of its desire to support an internationally important cultural project.