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Culture

Russia's Long-lost "Amber Room" Reopens

The rebuilt Amber Room, known to Germans and Russians as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” reopens near St. Petersburg in its entirety on Tuesday. The actual masterpiece has been lost without a trace since 1945.

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German officials have turned over four original Amber Room panels to Russia in the past few years.

Culture ministers from Russia and Germany on Tuesday will be among the first people to see the completely reconstructed Amber Room, an 18th century masterpiece that originally belonged to the Prussian King Frederick I.

For more than 20 years, dozens of Russian craftsmen have been sanding, cutting, coloring and gluing over six tons of amber to rebuild the room in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, literally “czar's village”, near St. Petersburg.

Peter the Great of Russia first admired the amber-paneled room in 1712 during a visit to Frederick’s palace in Berlin. Thousands of pieces of amber were assembled into intricate mosaics and decorated with ornaments, figures and patterns.

Czar Peter added the ostentatious panels to his own art collection in 1717, when he received them as a gift from the Prussian king's son and successor Frederick Wilhelm I. The German monarch didn't much appreciate art, but was hoping for Russia's help in fighting Sweden and the gesture was meant to put the seal on the "everlasting" alliance between Prussia and Russia.

Over a century and a half later, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were at war and in 1941 Nazi "art protection officers" took the Amber Room panels to the then German city of Königsberg, known now as Kaliningrad, Russia.

Whereabouts unknown

For four years the Amber Room was on display in the city palace, open to the public as a Prussian work of art, until the Soviets captured Königsberg in 1945. Then the pieces were presumably packed up, as a letter from Alfred Rohde, the director of palace's art collection, indicated in January 1945. Since then the panels have been lost, and the issue of their whereabouts has become a realm of wild speculation.

Numerous theories say that the Amber Room was smuggled out of Königsberg to avoid it being confiscated by the Allies as looted art, and many a treasure hunter has searched for the panels. The East German secret police tried to locate them for years, but had no more luck than anyone else. Mysterious circumstances surrounded the deaths of at least two of the treasure hunters, feeding the Amber Room myth and the conspiracy theorists. Some allege that the panels burned up as the palace in Königsberg destroyed.

Mosaik aus dem Bernsteinzimmer

A mosaic that is believed to have been part of the Amber Room. It was found by a lawyer in the northern German city of Bremen in 1997.

Although the Nazis claimed the room as a strictly German artwork, It wasn't until Peter's daughter, Elizabeth, was crowned czarina in 1741 that it started to take on its final glorious shape.

Elizabeth ordered that the Amber Room be assembled in her favorite palace in Tsarskoye Selo, which the Italian architect Francesco Bartolemo Rastrelli was modifying for her. But the rooms were too big for the 22 panels, so Rastrelli had more panels with semi-precious stones and 17 additional amber panels constructed to supplement the original materials. The remaining space was covered with trompe l'oeil paintings meant to look like even more amber panels. The work was finally finished in 1770.

Symbol of changing German-Russian relations

The more than two decades of work that went into restoring the masterpiece was an enormous undertaking. The only pictures that existed of the Amber Room were black and white, so, in order to achieve the right tones, the craftsmen were obliged to photograph their shards of amber and then painstakingly compare the shades to the original photos until they were sure the match was perfect.

Capturing the varying levels of the layered amber and the etchings was more difficult. The Leningrad Institute for Mining and Geo-mechanics provided the answer by creating spatial images using a special technique called photogrammetry that showed the heights and depths up to less than a millimeter, resulting in a sort of topographical map of the room.

Now completely reconstructed to match its former glory, the Amber Room will be officially opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on March 31 as part of celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.

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