Amber Collection in Mining Museum
Before the pandemic kicked in, a major scandal had broken out in the museum world of St. Petersburg. It turned out the Amber Room was too popular among Chinese tourists, resulting in numerous attempts to hold back their tide. With the comfort of other visitors in mind, Deputy Minister of Culture Alla Manilova even suggested that on certain days of the week, the Catherine Palace be open to Chinese nationals only.
As is known, the world-famous chamber decorated in amber panels was presented to Peter the Great by the King of Prussia. The gift was transported with great care to St. Petersburg, where it became the jewel of the emperors' summer residence.
This was a broad gesture indeed, but Frederick William I could afford it since he had the world's largest amber deposit in his possession. A tradition of processing hardened fossil resin by craftsmen of East Prussia, particularly by those from Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), emerged back in the days when the Teutonic Knights ruled that region. During World War II, the room eventually disappeared. Thanks to old sketches, it was reconstructed and re-opened in 2003, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.
The Chinese, however, could not care less whether the chamber was original or it was a re-created version of it. Where does their love for amber come from?
In ancient China, the yellow stone was called 'hu po', meaning 'spirit of the tiger'. Inhabitants of the Celestial Empire believed that once a powerful yet beautiful predator dies, its soul returns to earth and transforms into amber.
In Chinese mythology, the 'spirit of amber' takes the form of an old man - a symbol of experience and wisdom, who teaches to help and guide people instead of worrying about them. The thick layer of dense mist surrounding him is a protective shield that amber gives to its owner.
Once in China, it does not take long to notice that locals often carry small pieces of solar amber, running their fingers over them. Even nowadays, they treat it as something miraculous, endowed with healing and mystical properties, helping those suffering from lack of energy, relieving stress, and bringing joy to the soul. An amber amulet is viewed as one of the best gifts to a loved one. Hence, Chinese tourists are eager to visit Tsarskoye Selo and its souvenir shops showing off countless handiworks.
Nevertheless, the really precious and mineralogically rare samples of petrified fossil resin, which amber actually is, are on display in the Mining Museum.
The collection of one of the world's largest natural-scientific museums comprises artworks, jewellery and numerous articles of daily use - jewel and powder boxes, cigarette cases, chess sets. It does not end with these items, though. Most importantly, the Mining Museum holds untreated pieces of unusually shaped or rarely occurring amber from Russia and abroad. Among them are, for example, inclusions of stone in Cretaceous coal known as a 'pocket'. The latter is a natural phenomenon of encrustation occurring between the tree's trunk and bark. First specimens were brought in in the early 19th century from the Hermitage and the private collections of Catherine the Great, Minister of Internal Affairs Lev Perovski, and other well-known Russian and foreign mineralogists. As of now, the collection encompasses over 370 exhibits.
Showpieces of particular interest are inclusions, which are particles of prehistoric flora and fauna contained in resin. The supramolecular chemical structure of amber makes the stone more rigid and resistant to external factors. Extinct genera and species of plants and animals that lived 50-60 million years ago now happen to be the topic of palaeontological research. More than 440 different species of ancient beetles have been extracted from Baltic amber alone.
Of course, animal-derived inclusions are pretty rare, accounting for less than 2% of all amber found. In the past, they were considered defective, and the once-existing practice of selecting samples with inclusions has been resumed only recently.
Kaliningrad Oblast is unique, still being unrivalled in proved reserves of amber (approx. 90% of the world's total) and its concentration (2 kg/m3 on average). Under the Potsdam Agreement, it was agreed to transfer the northern part of East Prussia, which included the city of Königsberg and the adjacent area, to the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, one of the first decrees concerning the region required establishing the Kaliningrad Amber Combine on the basis of the local factory. Soon the resin extracted on an industrial scale became a valuable chemical feedstock for producing amber acids, oil and rosin, which are used in perfume manufacturing, the pharmaceutical and paint-and-varnish industries. Most of what was extracted nonetheless went into making art objects or was utilised by the jewellery industry.
In April, the Mining Museum was contacted by the Kaliningrad Regional Amber Museum, Russia's only museum of amber. The colleagues from Kaliningrad asked for help in retrieving the provenance of one of its unique pieces, a monumental vase. The value of an art piece depends mainly on its origin. Still, in this case, it is not just an item in some auction catalogue but a matter of historical significance.
Several years after the end of World War II, the Kaliningrad Combine was given a state order of particular importance - a set of paired amber vases named 'Abundance'. It was meant to decorate the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow (now Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy). The work was entrusted to the most experienced specialists. They had to be familiar with traditional ways of making art items and new technologies. In the end, the vases became the central part of the exposition dedicated to Kaliningrad Oblast - a symbol of the newly integrated subject, so to speak.
In 1966, Vladimir Kolomensky, then Director of the Mining Museum, visited the Kaliningrad Amber Combine whilst on a business trip. He bought one of the 'twin vases' that had by then been returned to the place of their origin. One vase was sent over to Leningrad; the other one ended up in the Kaliningrad Amber Museum.
"There are very few items of fossil resin which would be that large. They are comparable to the masterpieces that were once part of the now missing Amber Room in their exclusivity. The vases are made of an extremely scarce type of amber, having the shape of a teardrop. It comes from approximately 50-million-year-old fossilised resin, which flowed down the branches of relict coniferous giants. As naturally occurring drops are rather small (2-3 cm on average), craftsmen used a mosaic technique to produce monumental objects," explains a senior researcher at the Mining Museum.
The two pieces of the set have never been studied together before. They have not been considered as parts of a single design either. Future research on the object will focus on a comparative analysis of the amber used. The artistic execution of the vases in the context of the art of Prussian amber jewellers will also be analysed.
Still, the question arises: why did the Amber Museum request information from a St. Petersburg-based museum instead of reaching out to the Kaliningrad combine?
Here is the answer. The company was privatised during the early 1990s after a series of market reforms and sales of state-owned properties. The new owners did not invest in the renovation of production; they chose the easy way out, which would be to sell the product abroad. Consequently, Poland, Lithuania, and other countries took the lead in processing amber and selling amber jewellery. It took two decades, which saw as resales as bankruptcies, for the combine to be transferred to the state corporation. The equipment and production facilities underwent an upgrade, and the procedure for the export of raw amber was tightened.
Thereupon the rate of extraction was restored. However, many records are unfortunately lost forever, with those relating to manufacturing unique art pieces amongst them. Only museum and auction catalogues have been left. As the history of compiling them spans over centuries, they may help re-create the items.