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Guardian Weekend – The Amber Fascade

The event was so extraordinary that Pravda anatomized it minute by minute, with an Internet broadcast: ‘May 31, 2003, 15.30 hours: Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schroder arrive at the Catherine Palace, outside St Petersburg and ascend the Monighetti Staircase.’

Following the Russian President and German Chancellor up the stairs (that according to the Russian authorities were recently restored having been destroyed during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941) were first ladies Doris Schröder and Lyudmila Putina. Behind them trooped 40 more heads of state and government including Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan, Romano Prodi, Atal Bihari Vajapyee, and Hu Jintao.

Pravda reported: ‘Russia’s pride: leaders of foreign countries visit an exquisite event.’ The VIPs had come to St Petersburg to attend a Russian-EU summit (that coincided with the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city). However, their first appointment was an historic unveiling ceremony, 15 miles south, at the Catherine Palace.

Shepherded past cabinets displaying war-damaged cherubs, crystal teardrops and fragments of Sèvres, past black-and-white photographs of Soviet restorers gluing and binding everything back together again, the VIP entourage entered the Portrait Hall (where a small sign indicated that the original furniture had been stolen by the Nazis).

Finally, the party was led across a floor inlaid with rare hard woods into a curtained chamber illuminated by candlelight for the climax of the day. Pravda reported: ‘15.35 hours. The curtains are swept back. Russia’s fabled Amber Room dazzles again. Twenty years of work by Russian craftsmen has returned what was called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” to its place in the Catherine Palace.’

The original Amber Room, a Prussian audience hall panelled in complex amber mosaics, had been gifted to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717, in an era when amber was 12 times more valuable than gold. Restored and augmented by Catherine the Great 50 years later, visitors had marvelled at the Amber Room – until it was hacked from the walls by German troops in the winter of 1941 and secretly transported West, to Königsberg, the Nazi capital of East Prussia, from where it vanished, in the last days of war.

This being a Russian event, there was plenty of reading material available. Volume 1, of the Russian Federation Summary Catalogue of the Cultural Valuables Stolen and Lost During the Second World War from the Catherine Palace listed over 300 pages every missing artwork still being sought by the palace. Its cover was illustrated with a large hand-tinted photograph of the original Amber Room, said to be the most valuable missing art work in the world, worth – in absentia – £140 million.

Professor Ivan Sautov, palace director, wrote in an introduction that while delighted with the new Amber Room he and his staff ‘are convinced that the [original] has not perished and will be found as a result of properly organised searches’. His head curator also contributed an essay, concluding poignantly: ‘The [missing] artistic valuables of the Catherine Palace museum are still waiting to be returned home.’

A DVD playing in a neighbouring room dwelled on some of the conflicting theories about the Amber Room’s fate. European salvage experts were shown scurrying through the catacombs that run beneath the German city of Weimar, armed with the belief that Nazi agents had secretly smuggled the Amber Room there at the end of the war. Murky pictures were screened of the shipwrecked Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi liner torpedoed on 31 January 1945 that was evacuating 10,582 wounded Germans away from Königsberg. As well as the Amber Room? Russian, American and British mining experts were interviewed beside ore and potash pits in western Saxony and Thuringia arguing that as the Nazis had used mines and caves to conceal art works from Königsberg, the Amber Room too had been secreted in one of these subterranean tunnels. The film maintained that there was only one certainty: the lost Amber Room was still concealed in a secret German location that would eventually be found. If the VIP guests wanted further evidence of German culpability, a small stone mosaic was displayed on an easel in one corner of the new Amber Room. It had once hung in the original along with three others that were still missing. This one had been returned to the Catherine Palace on April 30, 2000, after the son of a Wehrmacht officer revealed that his father had concealed it in a Hamburg attic for almost 60 years.

However, within a few months of the unveiling the new Amber Room, having spent three years investigating the fate of the missing original, travelling from St Petersburg to Moscow, London to Washington, and from Germany to Liechtenstein and Austria, following a paper trail that took us into the parallel worlds of the KGB and the East German Stasi, we unearthed an audacious Russian lie: a Cold War con trick that on May 31, 2003 fooled the leaders of the world.

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