PUSHKIN, Russia - It is one of the most enduring mysteries of World War II: Where is the magnificent Amber Room that once graced the palace of Catherine the Great?
For more than 50 years, treasure hunters have searched Europe in vain for the priceless amber mosaics carted off by Nazi soldiers during the war. Russians have long mourned the loss of the jeweled chamber and have worked for 18 years to re-create what they regard as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
Then last month, two works believed to be part of the historic room surfaced for the first time in more than half a century. A stone mosaic and a lacquered wooden chest of drawers were discovered in Germany in the hands of private owners.
`A gigantic piece of jewelry'
Delighted Russian art experts are certain the treasures are genuine and hope they will soon be returned to Russia. But even more, they hope the find will lead to the discovery of the unique Amber Room given to Tsar Peter the Great in 1716 by the king of Prussia.
"In the whole of world history, there has never been anything like this room," said restoration chief Alexander Krylov. "The entire room was a gigantic piece of jewelry."
Some Russians believe it is not a coincidence that the art pieces have turned up just as Russia debates whether it should give Germany back works of art seized at the end of the war by Soviet soldiers.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, recognizing Germany as an important source of foreign aid, wants a free hand to negotiate the return of some of Russia's $65 billion collection of "trophy art."
But many Russians oppose giving any art back to Germany, viewing the treasures as small compensation for the devastation caused by the Nazis in World War II. The Russian parliament has passed a bill declaring all the contested art to be Russian property and forbidding its return.
Yeltsin vetoed the bill and both houses of parliament voted to override his veto - a first for Russian democracy. But Yeltsin said he will challenge the override before Russia's Constitutional Court.
In all, it took 6 tons of amber to create the 129 mosaic panels that make up the coveted chamber. The amber panels were installed at the czar's summer palace in the town of Tsarskoe Selo (since renamed Pushkin), 15 miles south of St. Petersburg.
Incorporated into the design were four prized 18th century Florentine mosaics made of marble and onyx. Strategically placed mirrors and gilded carved wood enhanced the amber's effect in the high-ceilinged, thousand-square-foot room.
"Imagine when the western beams of sun entered the room and lit up the panels," said Ivan Sautov, director of the palace museum. "It was said the room was shining from the inside."
At the start of World War II, Hitler ordered the "return" of the Amber Room to Prussia - by then a part of Germany. As Nazis advanced, the Soviets packed the amber panels to ship them to safety. But the Nazis captured the amber and sent it to Koenigsberg, where it was installed in a German castle in 1942.
At war's end, the Soviets advanced on Koenigsberg and the only escape route for the Germans was by sea. The panels were taken to the basement of the castle and again packed for shipment.
It was the last reported sighting of the Amber Room.
Search mounted for years
Over the years, countless seekers of the amber searched caves, mines, lakes, wartime ruins and Nazi strongholds, but never found a clue to its disappearance. Some suspect that just before the fall of Koenigsberg, the treasure was put aboard a German submarine or ship that was torpedoed as it tried to escape. Others speculate that the amber was hidden beneath Koenigsberg or in one of many secret bunkers and subterranean towns built by the Nazis.
In 1991, Yeltsin declared that he knew where the room was buried in East Germany. His pronouncement touched off a flurry of renewed digging but he never revealed the secret location.
When the discoveries of the mosaic and chest were reported last month, they were first greeted with disbelief. But Sautov, who assisted in verifying their authenticity, is convinced they are the originals.
The marble and onyx mosaic, he said, is one of the four Florentine mosaics that hung in the Amber Room for 200 years. Experts believe the mosaic was stolen separately from the amber panels because German photos show it was already missing when the Nazis reconstructed the Amber Room in Koenigsberg.
The mosaic was discovered in the possession of a Potsdam, Germany, lawyer by detectives hunting for other stolen art. The lawyer was seeking to sell the mosaic for $2.5 million on behalf of a client who had inherited it from his father - a German soldier who had sent the trophy back from the Russian front. "For 50 years, it was hanging in his house," Sautov recounted. "Very likely the owner did not know the history of the panel."
Shortly after the discovery, a German art restorer reported that in the 1970s he had repaired a lacquered Russian chest that matched the description of one displayed in the Amber Room. Sautov said he is certain it is one of a pair of chests made for the Amber Room in the 1760s.
Before the Nazi invasion, he said, it was moved to the basement of the palace, and, like the stone mosaic, was probably stolen separately by a German soldier.
While the two pieces offer no hint of the whereabouts of the Amber Room, they have given Russians hope for the first time in many years that the Eighth Wonder is still intact. "It all says the Amber Room exists somewhere," Sautov said. "Maybe these discoveries are a thread to finding all of the Amber Room."