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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Amber Room's Finishing Touches

MTVisitors to the Amber Room looking closely at the original mosaic "Smell and Touch."
ST. PETERSBURG -- Gem carver Sergei Kaminsky has spent the last 16 years recreating one of the world's greatest works of art, the mysterious Amber Room from the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg's suburb of Pushkin.

Together with 50 colleagues, from carvers to art historians, Kaminsky spends his days crouched over a microscope, studying tiny bits of amber and fitting them into the vast mosaics that will someday form an exact replica of the lost treasure.

"I still love this work," he said. "I just have to wear my spectacles now." It appears that the 23-year story of the resurrection of the Amber Room is finally nearing a happy ending.

This week, the restorers unveiled two newly completed panels and a copy of one of the original Florentine mosaics, and announced that the entire project will be completed on May 31, 2003.

On that day, President Vladimir Putin will cut the ribbon on the restoration in a ceremony that will be part of the celebrations for St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary.

Even now there are only two panels on the eastern wall and one of the four mosaics is missing, as well as a few details such as bronze fixtures. But the room already looks impressive.

"Contemporaries called it the eighth wonder of the world, and I'm sure that it will have the same reputation after the restoration," said Ivan Sautov, director of the Tsar's Palace state museum.

"Nobody ever made anything like this before or since," he added.

The Amber Room has been a symbol of Russian-German relations for nearly three centuries. King Frederick William I originally presented the luxuriously decorated panels to Peter the Great in 1716. It was eventually completed during the reign of Frederick the Great.

The room was installed in the Catherine Palace, the favorite summer residence of Catherine the Great, where it remained until the town was occupied by the Germans during World War II.

German troops then dismantled the room and shipped it away.

At that point, the panels disappeared and have never been found. In 1979, the Soviet government allocated $8 million to begin the restoration work.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the main funding for the project has been a $3.5 million contribution by Ruhrgas AG, the German gas giant, which is the world's biggest customer for Russian natural gas and which owns a stake in Gazprom.

Alexander Belenky / MT

Visitors to the Catherine Palace admiring the recently restored southern wall of the Amber Room.

In 1997, one of the original mosaics, titled "Smell and Touch," reappeared in Bremen, Germany.

It was later returned to the Catherine Palace and is now on display next to the restorers' copy.

The restoration is a tedious, painstaking process in which tiny slices of amber are sorted according to their color along a spectrum from light yellow to a dark reddish-brown.

Each color-matched amber piece is then affixed to specially prepared wooden panels.

The panels extend from the floor to the ceiling, which itself is decorated with Baroque paintings and gilded carvings.

"At first the restoration work went very slowly," said Tatyana Zharkova, spokeswoman for the museum.

"The experts had only a few prewar black-and-white photographs of the room and a single color slide from 1917," she said.

Artisans working on the project had to reconstruct the 18th-century techniques of working with amber and mixing it with honey and other substances in order to achieve the desired effects.

"Amber is one of the most capricious substances. Eighty percent of what we start with ends up in the trash," Zharkova said.

In all, 5.5 tons of amber were purchased for the project, all of it from the world's largest amber deposits near Kaliningrad.

In addition, the museum is purchasing other precious stones from private collectors.

"To make one amber bas relief, we had to buy 10 stones from a Moscow collector for $1,000 each," Zharkova said.

The key to the work, though, is patience.

Stone carver Radii Shakhayev has been working for nearly two years on the mosaic titled "Taste," the last of the four to be restored.

He proudly shows a 15-centimeter figure of a woman, painstakingly assembled from 100 separate stone pieces.

"That took me three months to make," he said, laughing.