by  Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy


On this matter, see this page, here                      



The Amber Room
Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy
386pp, Atlantic Books, £17.99

How the world's eighth wonder was lost in transit
(Filed: 13/06/2004)

Lewis Jones reviews The Amber Room by Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

At 4am on June 22, 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union. That afternoon the order was given to evacuate the treasures of Leningrad. Eight days later 17 railway carriages packed with 402 crates left the city for Siberia. But the greatest treasure of all – the Amber Room – was not aboard the train.

Commissioned in 1701 for Frederick I of Prussia, the Amber Room was created from tons of Baltic amber resin (which at the time was 12 times more valuable than gold), infused with honey, linseed and cognac, and moulded into dozens of panels backed with gold and silver. By the time of Frederick's death in 1713, though, it had yet to be assembled. In 1716 his son gave the panels to Peter the Great, who had a passion for amber. It remained in storage at the Summer Palace until 1743, when the Empress Elizabeth paid an Italian sculptor called Martelli to assemble it in the new Winter Palace.


Elizabeth moved the room three more times, damaging it quite badly in the process, until it ended up at the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, where it was restored and enlarged by Catherine the Great, and became known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. "The room is rather large," as Théophile Gautier described it in Voyage en Russie (1866), "with… walls wholly adorned with amber mosaic from top to bottom, including a frieze. The eye… is amazed and is blinded by the wealth and warmth of tints, representing all colours of the spectrum of yellow – from smoky topaz up to a light lemon."

Anatoly Mikhailovich Kuchumov, the young museum curator responsible for the 1941 evacuation, decided that the Amber Room was too fragile and difficult to dismantle, so he concealed it beneath layers of cloth and padding, covered the floor with sand, and hoped that the Germans would think it just an ordinary empty room. When they arrived on September 17, though, they discovered the room within hours, and within a couple of days had dismantled it and sent it back to Prussia, where it was stored at the Knights' Hall of Königsberg Castle. In May 1945, a month after the Red Army had taken Königsberg, the Council of People's Commissars ordered Professor Alexander Ivanovich Brusov of the State Historical Museum to recover the Amber Room. After thorough investigation Brusov concluded that it had been destroyed by fire during the assault on the city.

The next year the Soviets appointed Kuchumov, the curator responsible for the original loss of the treasure, to lead a further investigation. Kuchumov rubbished Brusov's findings, and reported that the Amber Room had been spirited away by the Germans to an unknown destination. Ever since it has been the subject of elaborate conspiracy theories involving Nazis, mineshafts, lakes, ships, the United States, South America and so on. A replica was built, at a cost of about $12 million (half of that from Germany, by way of reparation) for last year's tercentenary of St Petersburg, but the fate of the original, now reckoned to be worth about $250 million, remains the great art mystery of the post-war period, and teams of treasure hunters are still digging and trawling for it.

There have been two books on the subject, one by Kuchumov (1989), and another by the East German Paul Enke (1986). Now Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy present the fruits of "a two-year investigation… following a paper trail that took us into the parallel worlds of the KGB and the East German Stasi" that forced them "to confront the truth about a story that would challenge the way we perceive the Soviet Union and its place in the Cold War".

The story is interesting, but I'm afraid I thought their investigation nightmarishly tedious (as I'm sure it was for them - the waiting, the bureaucracy, the obsessive bores - but it hardly seems fair to inflict all that on the reader) and stunningly ill-written ("electoral role" and "foreboding chalets" occur on the same page). And when at last they did reach their conclusions - that the Amber Room was indeed lost to Red Army vandalism, that Kuchumov was lying to save his own skin, and that his lies are politically convenient for Russia (which still refuses to return its wartime loot to Germany, or to pay its Cold War debts) - my perceptions remained sadly unchallenged.


When amber turned to dust
(Filed: 27/06/2004)

Gina Thomas reviews The Amber Room by Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

The Amber Room has achieved legendary fame since it was installed by Catherine the Great in her summer palace of Tsarskoye Selo just outside St Petersburg. The carved amber panels, given to Peter the Great by the King of Prussia in 1716, were once the pride of Tsarist Russia. More recently the room - celebrated as the eighth wonder of the world - has become a national symbol, cherished by the Russians as the Elgin Marbles are by the Greeks.

Amber Room. See http://arlindo-correia.com/081103.html

The golden resin gathered from around the Baltic was far more precious than gold and visitors from far and wide marvelled at the splendour of the Amber Room. Theophile Gautier was "amazed and blinded by the wealth and warmth of its tints" when he saw it in the 1860s, describing it as a treasure such as one only reads about in "The Thousand and One Nights and in magic fairy tales". Since then the national mythology has imbued it with a new meaning as a symbol of the ravages inflicted on the Soviet Union by the Nazis.

In 1941 the Amber Room was dismantled by German troops and sent to Kaliningrad (then called Konisberg). It was displayed in the castle as a German treasure come home until the approach of the Red Army in 1944. It has not been seen since and no one has been able to establish exactly what became of this Baroque jewel.

Dozens of high ranking officials, art historians, amateur treasure hunters and journalists on both sides of the Iron Curtain have been on its trail since the last days of the war and theories about its fate abound. The remote hope that the panels might have survived - in a hidden bunker in Kaliningrad, in a Lower Saxon mine or even in America - has kept the industry alive. For many who became involved in the hunt, the Amber Room was like a drug; others liken their search to an illness.

Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy have applied their skills as investigative journalists to piece together what happened to the Amber Room. Theirs is a detective story, somewhat laboriously told, full of information and disinformation, and spiced with tales of espionage and intrigue, of suspicious deaths, of political ideology and obfuscation. The authors have dug around in secret archives and ferreted out a curious array of eyewitnesses - retired Stasi functionaries and obsessive cranks among them. During their tireless research in St Petersburg, Moscow, Berlin, Vaduz and Kaliningrad, they faced many bureaucratic hurdles.

Much of the fascinating new material they have brought to light underpins what was already in the public domain, especially the probability that the Amber Room did not survive the war. The Soviet official dispatched to Kaliningrad within days of the German surrender to discover what had happened to the panels reported as much. In June 1945 he wrote, "we should give up looking for the Amber Room". But his discoveries were hushed up, as this book reveals.

The authors relate how the Soviet Union fed the myth of the possible survival of the Amber Room in order to disguise the fact that it was the Red Army and not the "fascist looters" who destroyed the treasure after the German defeat. The most revealing passages of the book deal with the way in which the Soviets deliberately misled their East German comrades, who continued sinking hard currency into fruitless digs when Moscow had already issued orders to their own people to stop the search, knowing full well that it would lead nowhere.

The Soviets were loath to lose their trump card in haggling over the return of German art looted by soldiers of the Red Army in 1945 and went to considerable lengths to muddy the waters.

Not surprisingly these revelations have caused a stir in Russia where a replica of the Amber Room, built with financial support from the German energy company Ruhrgas AG, was unveiled by President Putin last year as a "symbol of Russian cultural and art losses". That statement rings a little hollow now but the book by no means lives up to its breathless claim that it challenges "the way we perceive the Soviet Union and its place in the Cold War". Soviet subterfuge is hardly news.

The story is marred by constant switches between past and present and a predilection for purple prose. The truth may never come to light but realists are unlikely to dispute the accuracy of the authors' conclusion that the Amber Room has not survived. Nevertheless this book is surely not the last word on the subject. As a German academic involved in the return of works of art stolen during the war comments: "Some people have princesses and fairies. Others have the Amber Room." And if this book proves anything it is that old myths are slow to die.

Gina Thomas is London Arts Correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine.



Forever 'Amber'

Despite more than 50 years of searching, the fate of a fabled Russian treasure may always be a mystery

By Steve Weinberg  |  June 20, 2004

The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure

By Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

Walker, 386 pp., illustrated,

For more than 200 years, Russian royalty and peasants alike took pride in the Amber Room, a museum of sorts within Catherine the Great's 18th-century palace outside St. Petersburg. Paneled in amber, it originated in the Prussian Empire, circa 1700. To make the conception a reality, Prussian rulers ordered tons of resin to be mined from the Baltic Sea, heated, shaped, and colored before master craftsmen pieced the slivers together on backing boards. Sixty years later, Prussian royalty made a gift of the amber panels to the Russian court at St. Petersburg (later known as Leningrad). From time to time, the czars allowed the public to visit the Amber Room. Even after the Bolshevik Revolution, it remained a breathtaking, and breathtakingly popular, tourist attraction.

In 1941, when Nazi troops occupied Leningrad without much warning, the palace's curators lacked time to dismantle and hide the contents of the Amber Room. When the Soviets regained control of Leningrad, the fate of the room's treasures could not be determined with certainty.

During the 1990s, two London journalists met at the Sunday Times, where they began paying attention to breathless communications from treasure hunters, plus government sources in both Russia and Germany, that the mystery might be solved. None of the notices comported with common sense, so the journalists, Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, began their own investigation into the fate of the room.

Their book is history as mystery, presented as a suspense story with the authors as the narrators and the central characters. The overarching theme, intended or otherwise, is the elusive nature of truth. For hundreds of pages, Scott-Clark and Levy lead readers on what is frequently a day-by-day account populated with stonewalling bureaucrats, cockeyed optimists, corrupt curators, and practiced liars.

At some points in the authors' research, it seems certain that the Amber Room remained in place within Catherine the Great's palace, effectively hidden by another room quickly constructed on top of it before the Nazis solidified their occupation. At others, it seems just as certain that the Nazis removed the room's contents to their territory, concealing the treasures from prying eyes. The authors naturally find the unfolding conflicting stories fascinating, sharing the alterations in their own conclusions chapter by chapter as new material becomes available in painstakingly opened Soviet archives, in once-forbidden East German surveillance files, in obscure books that must be translated from Russian and German, in the minds of real-life witnesses who are generally elderly, forgetful, hostile, deceitful -- and sometimes all of those simultaneously.

The many witnesses, officials, academics, and investigators whom the authors interview make up a diverse and unusual cast of characters. Larissa Bardovskaya is the current curator of the Catherine Palace; her mission seems to be to spin the truth today so that the Soviets of yesteryear can save face about the disappearance of the Amber Room. Wolfgang Eichwede is a professor at Bremen University trying to mediate between contemporary German and Russian officials over the return of artifacts stolen by each side from the other during World War II, a mediation that seems hopeless when nobody has the incentive to tell the truth about the hijacked goods. Paul Enke is part of the East German espionage apparatus before the end of the Cold War who wants to learn the fate of the Amber Room. He published a book about it in 1968, but how is anybody to evaluate a book that might have disinformation as its goal? The next most discussed account is by Anatoly Kuchumov, who headed the investigation from the postwar Soviet side about the Amber Room's fate. His 1989 book frequently contradicts Enke's research findings. George Stein is a German strawberry farmer turned treasure hunter who won lots of publicity because of his Amber Room quest. When he died a bloody death during 1987, was it a murder connected to the treasure hunt, a murder connected to an unrelated feud within his family, or suicide meant to appear as a homicide? And those individuals account for only about one-third of the significant personages in the book.

The conflicting stories are fascinating when read in isolation a few pages at a time. But the book could easily begin to bore and/or confuse readers less committed to discovering the fate of the Amber Room than the authors are. More synthesis would have been welcome, because the play-by-play will probably become as exhausting to casual readers as a pitch-by-pitch radio account of a ballgame would be to the casual baseball fan.

Readers paying close attention to the play-by-play of Scott-Clark and Levy might realize by the midpoint of the book that the narrative is losing steam. That is not only because of the conflicting details, but also because finding the whole truth and nothing but the truth seems so unlikely.

It would be unfair to prospective readers of ''The Amber Room" to divulge the authors' conclusions about the fate of the amber treasures. It is within bounds of fairness, however, to reveal that the conclusions are somewhat tentative and unarguably anticlimactic. The mystery does not so much disappoint as peter out.

Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a veteran investigative journalist. 


Mystery of the Amber Room resurfaces

Did legendary treasure burn in last days of WWII?

By Vladimir Isachenkov

Updated: 4:48 p.m. ET June 09, 2004

MOSCOW - A Russian veteran said Wednesday that he saw fragments of the legendary Amber Room in the closing days of World War II, suggesting one of the world’s greatest missing art treasures burned at a German castle after it was seized by the victorious Red Army.

Russian officials denied the allegations, saying the fate of the jewel-encrusted masterpiece carved in amber remains a mystery after Nazi troops looted it from a Russian imperial palace.

The assertions by Leonid Arinshtein, a literature expert with the nongovernmental Russian Culture Foundation, echo a recently published book that claims the fabled chamber vanished in a fire after the German city of Königsburg fell to the Soviets.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Arinshtein, 79, recalled seeing fragments of amber decoration in the Königsburg Castle but said he realized it was part of the lost treasure only years later.

“I probably was one of the last people who saw the Amber Room,” said Arinshtein, who was a Red Army lieutenant in charge of a rifle platoon when he knocked on the castle door in April 1945. “But I was a 19-year old boy, and I didn’t understand what I saw.”

Treasures kept in a basement?

Arinshtein described how he entered Koenigsburg Castle, accompanied by his sergeant, as battles raged on the streets. He said he noticed fragments of a wall panel and a mirror frame in amber on the walls of the Knight’s Hall and asked the castle’s custodian about them.

The man nervously told him the rest of the amber paneling was kept in cases in the basement and offered to show Arinshtein around, but the young Russian declined.

“It didn’t occur to me that it was the Amber Room,” Arinshtein said. “I thought it was just some ordinary amber decoration, and it left me indifferent.”

When Arinshtein tried to tour the castle a couple of days later, he couldn’t reach it: The entire city was engulfed in flames, and plumes of black smoke filled the skies.

Only years later, when he saw articles about the Amber Room hidden in Königsburg, did he make the connection between the fragments he saw and the missing treasure, Arinshtein said. Königsburg was annexed by the Soviets and renamed Kaliningrad.

Room epitomized Russia's losses

The elaborately carved chamber, made of nearly 1,000 pounds of amber, was a 1716 Prussian gift to St. Petersburg’s founder, Czar Peter the Great. Looted by the Nazis in 1941 from a former imperial palace, the Amber Room epitomized Russia’s losses in the war and inspired a series of treasure hunts.

An $8 million reconstruction of the chamber, partly funded by German gas giant Ruhrgas, was unveiled in St. Petersburg a year ago.

British investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark claim in their new book, “The Amber Room,” that the fire that destroyed the treasure was sparked by careless Red Army troops who looted Königsburg.

It says Soviet authorities knew the Amber Room vanished at the hands of its Red Army soldiers, but continued to claim it was missing as a convenient symbol of Nazi looting and destruction of Russia’s cultural treasures.

Russian officials hotly deny the book’s allegations.

“Such statements are aimed at rewriting history and discrediting Russia and the role played by its Red Army in World War II,” Mikhail Shvydkoi, the head of the government culture agency, was quoted as saying by Russian media.

Retired Gen. Valentin Varennikov, a World War II veteran who is now a lawmaker, denounced the book’s allegations as “invention.”

“It’s done by those who once again want to cast a shadow over the Soviet Union and its army,” Varennikov said in an interview Wednesday.

Search continues

Avenir Ovsyanov, an official in charge of the search for missing art with Kaliningrad’s regional administration, said that while some fragments of the Amber Room burned in the Koenigsburg Castle, its core had likely been taken away by the Nazis before the Red Army stormed the city.

He said the authorities are continuing to search for the Amber Room, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

While saying the Amber Room was probably intact when Königsburg fell, Arinshtein angrily dismissed the book’s allegation that the Red Army had accidentally burned the castle.

He said the fires, which started on the city’s outskirts after massive bombing and street battles between Russian and German forces, quickly swept the city “like a forest fire.”

“The Red Army didn’t burn anything,” he said. “What soldiers would burn the city where they will have to stay?”


Friday, June 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
Reporters make case for 'Amber Room' cover-up

By Deloris Tarzan Ament
Special to The Seattle Times

Google the words "Amber Room" and more than a million references are offered. The jewel-clad Russian room called "The eighth wonder of the world" is to that country what spontaneous combustion and crop circles are to America: a vexing mystery. Except that those who have probed the subject of the room's disappearance too deeply have an unpleasant habit of turning up dead.

In May 2003, in honor of the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg, a replica of the Amber Room was installed in the Catherine Palace Museum. Russian officials claim ignorance of what became of the original room, given to Peter the Great by Prussian King Frederick I in 1716. At the time, amber was 12 times more valuable than gold. When Catherine the Great installed the Amber Room in her summer palace, 565 candles reflected in mirrored columns lit its honey-colored glow.

In the orgy of art theft that accompanied World War II, the Nazis dismantled the Amber Room and shipped it to Konigsberg Castle in Germany. At the end of the war, the Amber Room went missing. All efforts to trace it have come up empty. Still, avid seekers explore the far reaches of deep German mines, hoping to find crates that hold a dozen large amber panels 12 feet high, 10 panels just over 3 feet high, and 24 sections of amber skirting board.

Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, investigative reporters for the Guardian in London, spent two years searching archives whose officials seemed dedicated to obscuring records, and interviewing people with long memories, in an attempt to find out what became of the room. "In dachas and apartments, on park benches and in faceless offices, memories came alive, loosened by vodka, sweet black tea and white beer," they write in "The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure" (Walker & Company, 386 pp., $26). "For every official file, diary or briefing paper said by archives and libraries to be missing or inaccessible, we found draft or duplicate documents stashed away in living rooms and in hallways. For every government album that had been emptied or was lost, we discovered framed photos above mantelpieces and in bedroom drawers."

An unnerving number of those who knew anything, or had investigated before the two reporters, had been hanged, hounded, jailed or had fled the country. Eventually, they discovered why, coming upon evidence of an extraordinary cover-up — an embarrassment buried deep in official files by a government that treated archives as information to be concealed and jealously guarded from prying researchers.

In 1958, when the Soviet Union and Germany reaffirmed fraternal ties, both sides pledged to return cultural valuables to the other. The Soviet list of items to be returned "consisted of an incredible 1,990,000 art works that had been 'rescued' from Germany," including the Trojan gold horde. The German list, which had been anticipated to include the Amber Room, was blank. "No cultural valuables from the USSR had been found in the GDR. Nothing. Not a stick of furniture could be returned to Moscow, as the Americans had already given back to the Soviet Union half a million valuables at the end of the war."


06 June 2004

Russian treasure story gilds the lily

The Amber Room: The untold story of the greatest hoax of the 20th century by Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy (Atlantic, £17.99)
Reviewed by George Rosie

FOR anyone who hasn’t heard of the story of the Amber Room – and I suspect that’s most of us – here’s what it was all about: it was a room in the Catherine Palace in St Petersburg which was completely lined with hugely expensive, gold-coloured amber mined from the seabed of the Baltic. Designed and crafted in the early 18th century, the Amber Room was a gift from Frederick William, King of Prussia, to Peter the Great of Russia. When it was finally put in place, the room was described by visitors as “the eighth wonder of the world”. The Amber Room was a remarkable piece of work, a genuine treasure, which was carefully tended by the Soviets when they inherited the country (and changed the name of St Petersburg to Leningrad).

The Amber Room came to grief in 1941 when the invading Nazis took the room apart and shipped it to Konigsberg in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad in Russia). But when the avenging Red Army swept through eastern Europe early in 1945 the Amber Room just disappeared. For years, art sleuths have scoured Europe in search of this Russian treasure. But if the authors are to be credited – and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be – these experts have been wasting their time. They say that the legendary Amber Room was destroyed by Red Army troops as they crashed into Konigsberg. The Soviets, of course, preferred to blame the retreating Germans for spiriting it away to western Europe. There were even rumours that the Amber Room had found its way to the US.

So far, so interesting. Judging from the only surviving colour transparency of the Amber Room, it was quite a place. Not great art, perhaps – certainly not the Sistine Chapel – but a truly stunning piece of 18th century craftsmanship. And worth much more than its weight in gold. Certainly worth all of the (mainly German) money that has been spent on its recreation. Amber Room II was opened with great ceremony by Vladimir Putin in May 2003 with Kofi Annan, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder (among many others) in respectful attendance.

It’s a good story, and well worth a book. The trouble with the one that Scott-Clark and Levy have produced is that it tells us far more than we need to know. By which I mean that the authors lay on the details of their search for the truth with a very heavy hand. Piling on the facts is a common failing among journalists and one that the book’s editor should have purged from the pages. As a result, just about every museum curator, art expert, university professor or minor bureaucrat Scott-Clark and Levy come across gets the Scott-Clark/Levy treatment.

Describing their interview with one Alexander Kedrinsky, for example, they tell us that: “The old man’s rolling Russian Rs clatter like falling pencils … The old man ruffles a small hand over his white hair … He grinds a filter-tipped cigarette into a viscous beaker of coffee and glowers out of the window at the blizzard ... His words chug like old locomotives, each one capped in small puffs of smoke … He reaches for a cigarette and pushes his fishbowl glasses back up the greasy bridge of his nose …” And so on.

The book is also written in the present tense, a conceit I find intensely annoying. By the time any story is researched, written and published it is well into the past. On top of which I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being invited to admire the authors’ persistence and skills in contending with Russia’s creaking bureaucracies and dismal living conditions. “We live like rats in an Empire-style mansion block at the eastern end of St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt,” they write. “The building’s cast-iron front door is fastened with a combination lock: 279. Its tumblers grind like teeth and the door opens onto a gloomy stairwell.” So what? Are we supposed to feel sorry for them?

There’s far too much of this kind of stuff. Most of it is pointless. It gets in the way of an interesting narrative. And some of the claims which Scott-Clark and Levy make for what they call “the greatest hoax of the 20th century” seem a bit inflated. They contend that the Russians have known all along that the Amber Room was destroyed by the Red Army but they have covered it up for almost 60 years in order to play on Western guilt. And to squeeze concessions out of Western governments while hanging on to the treasures they plundered from Germany. Their publicity tells us that this conclusion “will change our understanding of the cold war and its aftermath”. Somehow, I don’t think so.

What I find truly irritating about The Amber Room is that, under all the authorial embellishment, irrelevant fact and pointless “colour”, there is a cracking story. Scott-Clark and Levy have done their research, there’s no doubt about that. They’ve reached into one of the murkier corners of 20th century history and hauled out some intriguing material. The interplay between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia is a rich seam. I just wish they’d left their “literary” enthusiasms at home and concentrated on telling the story.





The Amber Room: the hoax continues

On June 5, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, a book, "The Amber Room: The Untold Story of the Greatest Hoax of the Twentieth Century" by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, appeared in British bookshops. The authors claim that the Amber Room, a masterpiece created by 18th century German craftsmen, burned down in a fire at Konigsberg Castle due to the negligence or vandalism of Soviet troops after the Red Army seized Konigsberg.
 The authors refer to documents they recently uncovered in Russian archives. An entry about the castle fire was made in his working notes by Anatoly Kuchumov, a former staff member of the Tsarskoye Selo museum and the Amber Room's curator.

 It should be recalled that the Amber Room was the most luxurious of the premises of the St Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo outside St Petersburg. Prussian King Frederick I gave it to Peter the Great as a present in 1717. The room was, in fact, a huge casket panelled in amber.
 When the Nazis attacked the USSR, museum staff did not have any time to dismantle the treasure and just pasted wallpaper over it. However, the Nazis discovered the ruse, stripped off the paper and sent the room to Konigsberg and the castle, which housed a museum. There, the treasure was re-assembled and put on a display as a trophy.
 The final fate of the masterpiece remains unknown.
 According to one of the most authoritative hypotheses, it was taken to Germany, where among many other masterpieces that SS detachments hid in mines and other places, it finally disappeared.
 However in their book, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark set forth a version that immediately became a world sensation.
 The point at issue is that while investigating the fate of the lost masterpiece in Konigsberg in the first days after Soviet troops entered the area, Kuchumov made friends with a former bartender from the officers' bar at Konigsberg Castle. The bartender told him that Soviet troops had set the castle on fire, thereby destroying everything in the Knights' Hall where the cases with the packed Amber Room had been stored.
 However, on the day of the fire, April 12, 1945, the bartender was in hospital and only learnt about the incident from his acquaintances when he returned to the bar.
 The authors of the sensation found Kuchumov's notes in the Central State Archive of Literature and Arts in St Petersburg. However, after they found the documents they cite, Levy and Scott-Clark did not deem it necessary to discuss them with Russian experts, preferring instead to describe their finding in a huge pre-publication PR campaign. This position prompts one to think that the authors were driven by commercial motives rather than truly academic interests and a desire to establish the truth. The authors' position makes one cautious and suggests that a critical approach attitude to the facts they cite should be adopted.
 However, apart from the moral aspect of the matter, their sensation is far from flawless. For example, they cannot explain how the most important part of the Amber Room survived, if the whole treasure burned down in the castle due to soldiers' negligence.
 The point is that a fragment of the room that was recently found in Bremen, in the flat of a certain Hans Achtermann. He offered it to antique specialists for $2.5 million, after which he was arrested.
 The discovery became an object of a special concern for the German government and by the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg, the fragment had been solemnly returned by the Bremen burgomaster to Russia and installed in its former place.
 By that time, though, St Petersburg restorers had recreated the entire room. The masterpiece had been revived.
 While explaining how the fragment found its way into his house, Achtermann said that his father, a former Wehrmacht officer, had brought it from Russia. He allegedly saved the panel during a bombing raid in 1941, when the masterpiece was being evacuated from the St Catherine Palace to Konigsberg.
 If it were a small fragment, a piece of amber, this act of looting would not be at variance with the destruction of the room in a fire.
 However, the fragment is the heart of the composition, the central unique panel "Smell and Touch", created by Italians using the Florentine mosaic technique (there were four such panels). This panel adorned the centre of an amber wall the way a diamond adorns the ring. The colour of the Florentine mosaic made of the most precious stones was a decorative "tuning-fork" to select the shades for the rest of the amber.
 However, if the Florentine mosaic had been stolen in 1941, the later demonstration of the assembled Amber Room in the Konigsberg castle would have been impossible. A black hole in the centre of the exquisite amber composition would have deprived the masterpiece of half of its fascination and half its value. However, it is a fact that the Amber Room was permanently exhibited in the museum under the patronage of art expert Doctor Rose. And there are no indications that in the halls of Konigsberg Castle the Amber Room was on display with this flaw. Its beautiful core might have been stolen later, in the Nazis' last days.
 This question alone is quite enough to make one doubt the version of the authors of the book that the whole Amber Room burned down in a fire.
 The same question makes one also doubt Achtermann's story about the feat of his father who "saved the mosaic" during a barbarous Russian bombing raid. But why did he save the mosaic and not return it? The year 1941 was not the right time for Germans to loot treasures that were under the patronage of the Reich.
 It would be more logical to suggest that everything did not fit so well and that he stole it at the height of the panic-stricken flight from Konigsberg, in the fatal year of 1945, not in 1941. Judging by everything, this happened during the evacuation of the masterpiece to Germany when - a month before the surrender and fall of the Third Reich - the theft of a Florentine mosaic no longer promised any serious consequences for a Wehrmacht officer.




11:07 07.06.04


Громкий и категоричный вердикт знаменитому шедевру вынесен в изданной в Великобритании книге "Янтарная комната: тайная история величайшей мистификации XX века". Авторы Эдриан Леви и Кэти Скотт-Кларк утверждают, что Янтарная комната, похищенная фашистами в октябре 1941 года из Екатерининского дворца в Пушкине, сгорела весной 1945 года в Кенигсберге. Российские историки считают это утверждение несостоятельным. Об этом заявил начальник отдела по поиску культурных ценностей при администрации Калининградской области АВЕНИР ОВСЯНОВ в интервью корреспонденту "Известий".

- У вас возникли вопросы к авторам книги?

- В том-то и дело, что нет. Какие вопросы могут возникать к инсинуациям? Если бы англичане выдавали свое утверждение не в качестве истины в последней инстанции, а в виде рядовой версии, наверное, люди, которые занимаются поисками Янтарной комнаты целенаправленно, постарались бы соблюсти корректность и промолчать. Но в данной книге выносится окончательный вердикт загадке
века, притом по-дилетантски категорично и совершенно безосновательно. Из архивных документов выдергиваются нужные для подтверждения собственной гипотезы фразы и игнорируются очевидные и объективные показания множества свидетелей. Например, первоосновой утверждения английских историков является ссылка на официальные записи советского искусствоведа Анатолия Кучумова. Я лично знал этого замечательного человека, неоднократно встречался с ним. До самых последних дней своей жизни Анатолий Михайлович верил, что Янтарная комната вот-вот найдется. И, конечно, он в немалой степени удивился бы, если бы узнал, что его записи были таким образом истолкованы.

- Что из записей Кучумова использовано в английской версии?

- Начнем с самого начала. 9 апреля 45-го года Кенигсберг пал под ударами советских войск. Уже в 20 числах апреля сюда прибыла первая команда наших искусствоведов, первоочередной задачей которых был поиск Янтарной комнаты. Этот десант возглавлял брат поэта Валерия Брюсова - Александр. Брюсов-младший отрабатывал возможные версии исчезновения похищенного шедевра. Само собой в первую очередь досконально обследовали последнее место хранения Янтарного кабинета - Королевский замок. Если бы у поисковиков появились серьезные основания подозревать, что советские войска сожгли это произведение искусства, вряд ли кто-либо рискнул скрыть эти подозрения. А Анатолий Кучумов появился в Кенигсберге в марте 1946 года, то есть через год после падения города. В Орденском замке он обнаружил несколько обгоревших предметов громоздкой мебели, вывезенной из того же Екатерининского дворца. Обратите внимание, не сгоревших, а именно обгоревших: на обугленном дереве четко читались инвентарные номера. О следах Янтарной комнаты в Королевском замке в записях Кучумова сказано дословно следующее: "Около входа в зал с наружной лестницы, в слое гари, были найдены три совершенно перегоревшие, обесцветившиеся мозаичные картины. По профилю бронзовых рам и чеканным виньеткам, украшенным камнями на углах, удалось установить, что это были мозаики итальянской работы XVIII века из янтарного зала".

- Разве такая запись не дает права утверждать, что Янтарная комната сгорела?

- Нет, и в этом в первую очередь был уверен сам Кучумов. Во-первых, чтобы понимать описанное искусствоведом, необходимо очень четко разделить сам интерьер Янтарной комнаты на главные составляющие детали (то есть стеновые панели, паркет и т.п.) и дополнительный антураж. Так вот описанные погибшие предметы относятся ко второй категории. Предположение, что в этом же помещении находилась вся Янтарная, нереально. Площадь этого самого маленького зала Королевского замка не позволяла бы чисто физически разместить там демонтированные панели из янтаря. На чем, кстати, впоследствии в своих записях акцентировал внимание искусствовед. Во-вторых, остатки мебели из других кабинетов Екатерининского дворца не выгорели, а обгорели. Без особого труда они вполне подвергались идентификации. Если даже предположить невероятное, что основные компоненты Янтарной комнаты сгорели дотла, то на пепелище должны были сохраниться отдельные предметы. Например, останки 24 пилястр из толстого зеркального стекла, искореженные зеркала из фацетного (тугоплавкого) стекла, многочисленные спайки бронзовой фурнитуры. Я уже не говорю об огнестойких породах дерева, которыми был в середине
XVIII века инкрустирован паркет кабинета: сандал, палисандр, лимон, амарант. Но ничего этого на пепелище не было обнаружено. Все это как раз и свидетельствует, что жертвой пожара стали мозаичные композиции, упакованные отдельно от янтарных панелей и паркета.

- Есть ли еще доводы, опровергающие утверждения авторов книги?

- Больше чем достаточно. Во-первых, вождями Третьего рейха Янтарная комната была объявлена "ценностью всегерманского значения". Отношение к этому трофею у лидеров наци было почти мистическое. Для того чтобы узаконить ее экспроприацию, фашисты придумали целую теорию о том, как прусский король вынужден был подарить этот кабинет русскому императору Петру
I, опасаясь гнева монарха великой державы, каковой в те времена представлялась Российская империя. Нацисты провели очень жесткое расследование по поводу неправильного демонтажа комнаты в Екатерининском дворце. Тогда-то и выяснилось, что некоторые предметы антуража Янтарной не были доставлены в Кенигсберг. Виновные понесли суровое наказание. Последний хранитель комнаты доктор Альфред Роде после каждой бомбардировки Кенигсберга докладывал лично в Берлин о сохранности именно этого шедевра. С августа 44-го года после напалмовой бомбардировки города, проведенной английскими летчиками, систематически вставал вопрос об эвакуации этого произведения в столицу рейха. Трудно себе представить, что при столь трепетном отношении нацисты бросили упакованную комнату под открытым сводом полуразрушенного Королевского замка.



The St. Petersburg Times


 Galina Stolyarova

Outrage At Amber Room Book  




Bernsteinzimmer verbrannt?

The Globe and Mail


Adele Freedman

The shine comes off a glittering room

Chicago Tribune


Marc Spiegler

A surprising solution to an art-world mystery


Read these articles here



Edited extract


The Amber Room: The Untold Story Of The Greatest Hoax Of The Twentieth Century,

by Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy



The amber facade

For two centuries, the Amber Room - a chamber entirely panelled in amber - adorned the summer palace of the tsars near St Petersburg until in 1941, when the Germans invaded, it was stolen. Since the war, thousands of treasure hunters have pursued ever wilder theories in search of 'the eighth wonder of the world'. Yet it is still missing. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark began their investigation three years ago, and have at last discovered the astonishing and shameful solution to the mystery of the Amber Room

Saturday May 22, 2004
The Guardian

The event was so extraordinary that Pravda anatomised it minute by minute, with an internet broadcast: "May 31 2003, 15.30 hours: Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schröder arrive at the Catherine Palace outside St Petersburg and ascend the Monighetti Staircase." Following them up the stairs were the first ladies, Doris Schröder and Lyudmila Putina. Behind them trooped 40 more world leaders, including Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan and Romano Prodi.

The VIPs had assembled to attend a Russian-EU summit. However, their first appointment was a historic unveiling ceremony at the Catherine Palace, built by Peter the Great for his fiancée 15 miles south of St Petersburg in a place that became known as the Tsar's Village, now renamed Pushkin.

The entourage was 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, and into the portrait hall - where a small sign indicated that the original furniture had been stolen by the Nazis.

Finally, for the climax of the day, the party was led across a floor inlaid with rare hardwoods into a curtained chamber illuminated by candlelight. 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 - an entire chamber panelled and ornamented in amber - was presented to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 by King Frederick William of Prussia as a gift to seal the friendship between their two states. At the time, amber was 12 times more valuable than gold. Fifty years later, the new empress, Catherine the Great, restored and augmented the Amber Room, which was by then installed in the Catherine Palace, where she entertained her legion of lovers.

There it remained, a marvel to visitors, until it was dismantled, the panels hacked from the walls, by German troops in the winter of 1941. The room was secretly transported west, to Königsberg on the Baltic Sea, then the Nazi capital of East Prussia. Since the war, it has been missing.

Hordes of treasure hunters from Europe, the US and Russia have spawned dozens of conflicting theories about the whereabouts of the Amber Room. A group of salvage experts have scoured the catacombs that run beneath the German city of Weimar, in the belief that the room was smuggled there by Nazi agents at the end of the war. Divers regularly explore the rusting wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German liner torpedoed in January 1945 as it was evacuating 10,582 wounded Germans from Königsberg - and, so the theory goes, the Amber Room, too. Meanwhile Russian, American and British mining experts surmise that since the Nazis used mines and caves to conceal art works from Königsberg, the Amber Room, too, might be secreted in a subterranean tunnel somewhere.

Work began on the replica Amber Room in 1999, when a German company stepped in with a gift of £2m. At the grand opening in 2003, it being a Russian event, there was plenty of reading material available, including a 300-page catalogue listing artworks stolen or lost during the second world war and still being sought by the palace. The cover was illustrated with a large, hand-tinted photograph of the original Amber Room, said to be the most valuable missing artwork in the world, worth - in absentia - £140m. 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".

We began investigating the fate of the lost Amber Room in December 2001. We flew first to St Petersburg on a grey and weary day, and made slow progress with our inquiries through official channels. Friends at the university suggested another, more lateral strategy. They helped us piece together a network of subordinate characters, Red Army veterans, old comrades, serving and retired museum curators. Gradually, we unearthed the stories of those directly involved with the Amber Room. A paper trail led us into the parallel worlds of the KGB and the East German Stasi, and finally, three years later - a few months after the grand opening at the Catherine Palace - we unearthed an audacious Russian lie: a cold war con trick that on May 31 2003, fooled the leaders of the world.

On June 22 1941, urgent orders arrived from Moscow: everything of value in the city of Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then called) was to be evacuated. The Nazis had invaded at 4am that morning without a declaration of war. Grinding across the Soviet Union was the greatest invasion force in history: four million German soldiers; 207 Wehrmacht divisions; 3,300 tanks. Collections from Leningrad's palaces and museums had to be saved. But there were 2.5m exhibits in the Hermitage and hundreds of thousands more displayed in the Alexander, Catherine and Pavlovsk palaces located in and around the small satellite town of Pushkin.

Anatoly Kuchumov, a young curator working in Pushkin, scribbled in his diary: "22 June. Flown through the halls this evening, packing what we can." But there was too much to do: "24 June. Not stopped for 24 hours. Comrades having nosebleeds from leaning over the packing crates. Run out of boxes and paper ... Had to use the tsarinas' dress trunks and their clothes to wrap up our treasures."

By September 1, the Germans had surrounded Leningrad, isolating two million citizens who would not see the outside world for almost 900 days. Seventeen train carriages packed with palace treasures were heading for Siberia, but inside the Catherine Palace a handful of curators continued to work. Couriers carried their reports back to the city authorities. The last arrived at 5am on September 17. "The park and north of the town are battling hard. Everyone is moving to the west. We have taken even the typewriters. We will leave nothing for them."

Except the Amber Room. Kuchumov had faced an appalling dilemma: "A trial moving of one of the panels has resulted in disaster. The amber facing has come off the mount and shattered completely. We cannot move the Amber Room. We dare not move it. What are we to do?" His solution was to hide it where it was, constructing another, plainer room on top of it. The amber walls were covered with gauze and wadding from the Pushkin sewing factory, then papered over. He hoped that if the Nazis managed to force their way into the Catherine Palace, they would be deceived.

The plan failed spectacularly. Within hours of capturing the Catherine Palace on September 17 1941, German troops unmasked the Amber Room, dismantled it and packed it into crates that were transported to Königsberg Castle in East Prussia - from where they vanished.

We had decided to begin our search with Anatoly Kuchumov, the last guardian of the Amber Room. Letters, faxes and phone calls went unanswered. At the state retirement homes outside St Petersburg no one knew him. Then we found an obituary in a back copy of Pravda. Kuchumov had died in 1993. We contacted the museum authorities in Pushkin, where Kuchumov had worked. A week later we were summoned to meet Professor Ivan Petrovich Sautov, director of the Catherine Palace.

Pushkin was muffled by snow as our mashrutki (shared minibus-taxi) pulled up. We jumped down into the soft, white powder and walked across the park. There were so many stories about Sautov in this city that it was just conceivable he started some of them himself. Could it really be true that on his 50th birthday he lined the long route to the palace with pageboys bearing cups of vodka? Ushered into his office, we stood to attention before photographs of Sautov taken with presidents Putin and Clinton and Queen Elizabeth II.

Sautov's suit was glossy. His fountain pen, with which he tap-tap-tapped on his desk, had an amber clasp. A smiling woman in her 60s sat at the other end of the office, her face framed by a "Zsa Zsa" of platinum hair. She was Larissa Bardovskaya, the head curator. "What information do you require?" she asked. Are there any of Kuchumov's papers in the palace archive? She leaned towards us, shaking her head: "What does the Catherine Palace get?" Sautov yawned and then he boomed, "We are not a charitable enterprise. Why should you make money from what we know? Precious knowledge. Expensive knowledge."

"Everyone signs a contract," Bardovskaya chipped in. "Steven Spielberg signed and paid half a million to hire the mirrored ballroom. Elton John threw a party and he signed for £140,000. We know better than anyone the cost of trying to find the Amber Room," she said, pulling a buff envelope out of her handbag. She showed us material, including pages of black-bordered memorial cards with RIP scrawled over each one, sent to the palace anonymously, following a German exhibition about the missing Amber Room. On one sheet were grainy photographs of crime scenes, houses ripped apart by explosions, car crashes, a body lying under fallen birch leaves. Had people been murdered searching for the Amber Room, we asked. "It's confidential material," she snapped. "Not for publication."

Two days later we received a letter: "Thank you so much for your interest. All the materials we have are the result of our own work that has taken years and years to pick up; crumbs of information. I find it beyond our physical powers to answer your questions or meet the scheme suggested by you. With respect ..." We'd been snubbed. The Catherine Palace had no intention of sharing its material, if it had any.

Next, with the help of one of the elderly museum curators who befriended us, we obtained a reader's ticket for the Central State Archive of Literature and Art. We were led up a broad staircase worn down by legions of clerks. " Dobroye utro," demurred a small elderly woman with sculpted hair. "Alexandra Vasilevna Istomina, archive director. I don't think I can help you." We had come forearmed. We slipped a letter of reference across her desk. Alexandra Vasilevna's painted forefinger trailed every word. It was written by the head of a St Petersburg publishing house, whose company subsidised the printing of her catalogues, and he strongly recommended that we be allowed entry. The director looked up at us, smiling. She produced three cups of black tea and a box. Out of it tumbled chocolates wrapped in glittering foil embossed with Soviet symbols. "We still have to get used to letting people in - to this openness, as you would call it," she said, adding the rider, "All files will have to have to be paid for." Well, at least there were files. "Begin tomorrow," she ruled cheerily. In Russia, it was never today.

A box file wrapped in ribbon sat upon our allotted desk. Our names were the first written on the readers' record that had been stuck on it so recently that the spittle that moistened the glue was still damp. This was the first of a dozen boxes containing the private papers of Anatoly Kuchumov. We gingerly opened the lid to find a bundle of pages torn from a school exercise book, covered in rows of tidy Cyrillic letters. It was a diary extract from March 1944, Kuchumov's thoughts upon arriving back at the Catherine Palace after the Nazis had occupied it for three years. Kuchumov wrote: "The sculptures are without heads. The parquet and fireplaces are smashed and broken. If only the walls could talk." As he climbed over "heaps of burnt beams, bricks and iron", Kuchumov must have held his breath. Where was the treasure that he had painstakingly concealed in June 1941? "Every step just kills me," Kuchumov wrote. "These beasts made stables of the palace-museum, of our pride."

The Amber Room had gone.

The next document was another diary extract written in purple ink, datelined Königsberg, March 1946. It confirmed that less than a year after the war ended, Kuchumov had been sent by SovNarKom, the Council of People's Commissars, to investigate the fate of the treasure that he had failed to evacuate. The mission was top secret and Kuchumov was ordered to tell his colleagues he was taking a holiday.

On March 19 1946, having arrived in Königsberg, Kuchumov wrote, "The only buildings that were standing were single cottages at the end of streets, villas in the middle of the rubble that were now occupied by the Central Commandant and the Narkomats [representatives of the People's Commissariat]. There were about 25,000 German refugees that we could see living in cellars and ruined buildings in the suburbs." This was all that was left of a city of 2.2m. Hitler's most vital eastern stronghold had been encircled and crushed by the Red Army in some of the fiercest fighting of the spring of 1945.

Kuchumov headed straight for Königsberg Castle, where a year earlier a Red Army colonel had found a Nazi ledger confirming that the Amber Room had arrived there in December 1941. Was it still there? Only one corner of the castle, with its medieval Knights' Hall, had survived relatively unscathed. Kuchumov crawled in on his hands and knees over blocks of stone and wooden beams to find that, even here, there had been an inferno. He also discovered traces of the Amber Room.

Kuchumov reported to Moscow: "Covered in three layers of ash, totally burned and discoloured, we have found three stone mosaic pictures ... that once decorated the Amber Room." These small scenes depicted in coloured stones had been commissioned by Catherine the Great to hang on the amber panels. But there should have been four of them. The fact that one was missing gave Kuchumov hope that it had been stored elsewhere. He already knew from German newspaper reports that the panels of the Amber Room had been dismantled and packed into crates. Maybe these crates and the missing mosaic had been kept together and had escaped the fire.

Kuchumov wrote excitedly to Moscow that a cache of partially burned German letters recovered from the rubble revealed a Nazi plan to evacuate the Amber Room after the Allies began bombing the region in August 1944. One letter, to the Ministry of Culture in Berlin, dated January 12 1945, stated that the Amber Room was being packed and that a castle in western Saxony, far from the eastern front, had been earmarked. Did the Nazi operation go ahead? Kuchumov consulted maps and scribbled, "By mid-January the railway connections between Königsberg and the rest of Germany had been cut off. The last train left on January 22. Moving the Amber Room to Germany by air or sea could have been achieved until mid-March, but this was incredibly dangerous, taking into account the proximity of the front and the domination of our air forces." He concluded, "If the Nazis had used the roads, they could have taken the clumsy and heavy crates only as far as some location within East Prussia."

Four years later, in December 1949, Kuchumov obtained permission to excavate in Kaliningrad, as Königsberg had been renamed when the territory became part of the Soviet Union after the war. For the next decade he led teams that dug in secret, deflecting any inquiries by claiming they were prospecting for oil. But there was a myriad of potential hiding places: Teutonic ruins, bunkers and disused mines. Kuchumov could not survey them all. Apparently frustrated by his lack of results, he recommended a new approach - going public.

On July 6 1958, Kaliningradskaya Pravda, a densely written Soviet broadsheet, published a sensational story: "The Search Continues for the Missing Amber Room." It revealed that covert Soviet search teams were hunting for the Amber Room, pursuing clues that the Nazis had concealed it in a secret bunker. All readers were urged: "Write in, write to us with all your information." Within days several other newspapers carried the story. The Soviet public, who had been told nothing of the fate of the Amber Room, was enthralled. When a report appeared in an East German magazine Freie Welt, Amber Room fever spread throughout the eastern bloc. Thousands responded: Red Army veterans who had besieged Königsberg; Germans who had witnessed the fall of the city; civilians who claimed to have seen heavily-guarded trains or SS convoys passing through their villages in the dead of night. Lines of inquiry that led to Germany were to be investigated by the Stasi. Those that led to Russia would be analysed by Kuchumov, who now had a new team.

In September 1959, apparatchiks from practically every Soviet security, party and defence organisation were recruited to help find the Amber Room. But yet again, according to the Kuchumov files, they found nothing. And so the Leningrad curator took the search for the Amber Room higher up the political echelons. By March 1967, he had drawn in leading figures in the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who gave him permission to brief the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers. Kuchumov had become a driving force of Soviet policy on what was now its most valuable missing treasure.

For the next 17 years, Kuchumov had charge of a secretive search team backed by the Kremlin and codenamed "the Choral Society", as its offices were housed in a rehearsal hall above the Church of the Holy Family in Kaliningrad. But it was closed down in 1984. We located its final report. All that the team had found was "40 pieces of artillery, cannon balls, bullets and aerial bombs ... and under the floor of a private house in the centre of [Kaliningrad] were recovered dead bodies, a coffin and a red flag on which was the hammer and sickle".

At this point, Kuchumov now received his greatest honour. At the bottom of a box file we found a small newspaper cutting. The Leningradskaya Pravda reported on April 22 1986: "Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Nikolai Richkov, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, announce ... recipients of the Lenin Prize." Listed with the handful chosen to receive the Soviet Union's highest civilian honour was "AM Kuchumov (art historian)", awarded in recognition of "outstanding achievements" and "the solution of tasks vital to the state". Why was Kuchumov honoured when he had found nothing?

Among the thousands of documents we uncovered in St Petersburg and Berlin were two letters that raised disturbing questions about the goals of the official investigations into the missing Amber Room. One came from Jelena Storozhenko, the former chairwoman of the "Choral Society". On July 19 1986, she wrote to Kuchumov: "Dear Anatoly Mikhailovich, I am giving you these notes in the hope that they would be printed for the world to see." She went on to fill 20 pages with detailed allegations of how the Soviet military authorities in Kaliningrad had continually hampered her inquiry, resulting in its failure and premature closure. Kuchumov did nothing with her information.

The second letter was equally surprising. It came from Erich Mielke, the East German minister of state security, head of the Stasi and renowned for his reluctance to incriminate himself by putting pen to paper. Yet in August 1988, Mielke wrote to Viktor Chebrikov, the chairman of the KGB in Moscow, voicing his concerns about the progress of the Stasi's Amber Room inquiry. Mielke complained that throughout 26 years of investigation the KGB had declined to share any intelligence with the Stasi.

It became clear that the Soviet Union, while wanting to be seen to search for the Amber Room, was also determined that nothing should be found.

By the end of his life even Kuchumov was exhibiting signs of paranoia. We found among his papers a manuscript for a book on the Amber Room, which he compiled four years before his death. In it, Kuchumov wrote: "The failure of the searches for the Amber Room should not be an embarrassment for the Soviet people, particularly museum workers. The Amber Room did not die. This masterpiece could not have been deliberately destroyed. There are many secret places that we still have not discovered left by the Nazis in the territories of Germany, Austria and other countries. It is only a question of time before it is found." Kuchumov's manuscript was shot through with recriminations. But who had, at this time, alleged that the Amber Room had been deliberately destroyed? We could find no evidence of such a claim - until we opened the last box file.

In it were details of another secret investigation, one that preceded Kuchumov's critical mission to Königsberg of 1946 by nine months. In May 1945, only days after the Germans surrendered, the Soviet leadership ordered an inquiry into the fate of the stolen Amber Room. Two months later, Alexander Ivanovich Brusov, a professor at the historical museum in Moscow, one of the core members of the inquiry team, made his report: "Packed into crates, the Amber Room was placed in the Knights' Hall of Königsberg Castle. In the spring of 1945 it was decided to evacuate the Amber Room to Saxony ..." He was referring to the Nazi plan to safeguard the Amber Room that Kuchumov had also uncovered. However, Brusov had found a witness who claimed that the plan had been aborted at the last minute. Paul Feyerabend, manager of the Blood Court restaurant, the macabre name for a wine bar that was located in the old torture chamber of the Teutonic castle, beneath the Knights' Hall, told Brusov that the crates had never left the building. Brusov wrote, "Restaurant manager Paul Feyerabend was in the castle up until its capture [by the Red Army] and says the Amber Room was in crates at the moment of surrender and burned there later during a fire that destroyed the northern wing of the edifice." Brusov added that he had inspected the Knights' Hall on June 5 1945 and found "traces of fire, ash heaps and ash covering the entire floor", and also "small pieces of burned wooden strips and parts of cases and some parts of mouldings and copper hinges from the doors, which were taken by Germans from Pushkin and moved to Königsberg along with the Amber Room".

Brusov was emphatic. The Amber Room had been destroyed. Attached to his shocking report we found a sheaf of typed and signed papers from Kuchumov that showed he had read and analysed these findings before his expedition of 1946. One document, "Statements of citizens of Kaliningrad, collected by myself", revealed that Kuchumov had even interrogated the same witness, Feyerabend. On April 2 1946, Feyerabend had told Kuchumov exactly what he had told Brusov: "At the beginning of April 1945, the packed Amber Room stood in the Knights' Hall. Several days later the city's resistance began. I was located in the cloakroom and the Knights' Hall during the [Soviet] attack [of April 7 onwards]. On the afternoon of April 9 ... I hid in the wine cellar with several servants. Later, with their agreement, I hung from the northern wing of the castle a white flag as a sign of surrender.

"At 11.30pm that night [April 9] a Russian colonel came. When I told him everything and gave statements he ordered the evacuation of the castle. At 12.30am [April 10], when I left, my restaurant was occupied by artillery regiments of the Red Army. The cellar and Knights' Hall were not damaged at all. However, after I came back from Elbing, where I had been hospitalised, I heard from the castle director that the Knights' Hall and the restaurant [beneath it] had been burned down."

Kuchumov had learned in 1946 that, in a cataclysmic error of judgment or an orgy of vengeful violence, undisciplined Soviet soldiers had allegedly torched the most valuable missing treasure in the world. And yet, according to his papers, Kuchumov suppressed this evidence when reporting to Moscow. Instead, he told a completely different story that would generate an extraordinary search across the Soviet Union and Germany in pursuit of phantom Nazi thieves and a mythical hiding place for the Amber Room. Why?

For Kuchumov, the die was cast on June 30 1941 when 17 train carriages bearing evacuated treasures pulled out of Leningrad bound for Siberia without the panels of the Amber Room that he chose to conceal in situ. The Nazis saw through the deception easily and stole the room. By the time Kuchumov was sent to Königsberg in March 1946, he had good reason to be worried about his error of judgment. Among the papers he kept until the end of his life were government reports indicting several of his former museum colleagues who were exiled to the gulags after the war, accused of failing properly to organise the evacuations of 1941. By resurrecting the Amber Room, Kuchumov could deflect attention from accusations that the treasure should never have been left behind in the first place.

The Soviet Union also needed to resurrect the Amber Room. In February 1946, when the Soviets presented their case to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, emotions were running high. Expert witnesses from Moscow and Leningrad justifiably claimed that German looting and the destruction of the USSR's museums and cultural trophies, particularly the fate of the Leningrad palaces, were catastrophic and encompassed all Soviet suffering. But, simultaneously, papers we found reveal that the Allies were gathering intelligence that the Red Army had looted more than 2.6m German-owned treasures. They included the most prized works in German national collections: the Pergamum Altar, the ancient altar of Zeus; the "Trojan Gold", the diadems and necklaces said to have been worn by Helen of Troy; the Bremen Kunsthalle collection that included drawings and paintings by Dürer, Goya, Titian, Rembrandt and Cézanne; a Gutenberg Bible (one of only 40 in existence); and the entire Dresden State Art Collections (including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velázquez, as well as Raphael's Sistine Madonna). The last thing Stalin needed was for it to become known that heroic Soviet soldiers had destroyed one of the Motherland's unique treasures. And so, when Brusov submitted his report to this effect to SovNarKom, it had to be suppressed and the professor silenced. In April 1946, when Kuchumov, weighed down with guilt and fear, proposed that the Amber Room was hidden and needed only to be found, the Kremlin embraced his paper-thin theory. It enabled Stalin to point to a "still missing" Amber Room as evidence of how the Motherland continued to suffer as a result of the Nazi invasion. Once Moscow had launched the story of the "lost" Amber Room, the search became a necessity (although the military did its best to rein in subsequent investigations). As speculation about its hiding place gathered momentum, ever more senior figures in the Soviet hierarchy became embroiled in what was now a patriotic mission. Perhaps, as time went by, the Soviets forgot the real story, believing instead the dogma.

But the flaws in the Russian deception become clear with hindsight. In 2000, a stone mosaic from the original Amber Room resurfaced in a Hamburg attic. The Russian government jumped on the story as evidence that Germans were still clinging on to their treasures, looted in the war. What was not revealed was that the mosaic had been separated from the rest of the Amber Room in 1941, stolen from the Catherine Palace by a trophy-seeking Wehrmacht officer who spirited it away to his home town while the amber panels of the room were transported to Königsberg. The discovery of this fourth mosaic in Hamburg actually undermined Kuchumov's argument that the Amber Room had survived. Kuchumov had advised Moscow that as he could not find the fourth mosaic in the Knights' Hall of Königsberg Castle, wherever it was now to be found, there, too, would be the panels of the Amber Room. And yet this mosaic never made it to Königsberg.

Even today the myth of the missing Amber Room serves the Russian government well. It continues to hold on to 1.6m artworks looted from Germany during the second world war. Whenever the issue of restitution is raised by Germany, so is the "missing" Amber Room. The most recent spat came in early 2003. Answering German newspaper claims that it was immoral for Russia to keep German-owned artworks 58 years after the war, Valentina Matviyenko, the governor of St Petersburg, said, "It was immoral to steal the Amber Room, besiege Leningrad, destroy thousands of Soviet cities and kill millions of Russians ... We have every right to make terms on the returns, for it is we who paid the highest price for the Great Patriotic War."

And so when 40 heads of state and other world leaders arrived in St Petersburg for the unveiling of the new Amber Room on May 31 2003, surrounded by displays, a film and a catalogue that detailed German crimes, they were unwittingly assisting a state-sponsored deception. Kuchumov's lie was sealed like an insect trapped in resin. The facsimile Amber Room, restored for £3.5m (of which almost £2m had been donated by Ruhrgas, a German energy provider), now served as a constant memorial to Russia's loss at the hands of the Nazis.

Nothing - especially the truth - was allowed to get in the way of this great day. Even the sun had been made to shine. President Putin ordered Russian air force jets, armed with freezing agents, to "influence the rain clouds", banishing them from the skies above St Petersburg at a cost of £570,000.

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