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Black Market Amber Trade Flourishes on Baltic Coast
BLACK MARKET TRADE IN AMBER FLOURISHES ON BALTIC COAST
By ROWLINSON CARTER
London Observer Service
LONDON - Thanks to "Jurassic Park," one of the easiest ways to make money in
Poland and Lithuania is to set up a stall selling jewelery and trinkets made of
amber - the fossilized pine resin that, entangled in seaweed, has been washed up
along the Baltic shoreline since time immemorial.
How insects become suspended in a state of perfect preservation inside lumps of
amber used to be one of childhood's great mysteries.
Even the acerbic 18th-century poet Alexander Pope was moved to muse:
"Pretty in amber, to observe the forms,/Of Hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs
or worms;/The things, we know, are neither rich nor rare,/But wonder how the
devil they got there."
Today, any child of the Spielberg age will tell you exactly how they got there.
How insects unwisely alighted on the oozing resin, got stuck, were gradually
cocooned and, over the next 40 million years, fossilized. As forests were
swamped by the rising seas, these insect tombs formed a layer just beneath the
seabed which then became plowed up by passing icebergs. Eventually they were
blown ashore by storms mostly in the Baltics but sometimes as far away as the
east coast of England.
Steven Spielberg's fictitious thesis was that one of these unfortunate insects,
a mosquito, had dined on a dinosaur before becoming lodged in amber. Modern
scientists were then able to extract the dinosaur's DNA from the mosquito and
re-create the beast.
In ancient times, the honey-colored amber was more valuable than gold. When the
tomb of the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamen, who died circa 1350 BC, was opened by
Howard Carter in 1922, it was found to contain an exquisite amber necklace.
During World War II, there was a race between Hitler's troops and the Red Army
for possession of the Amber Room kept at Konigsberg, then capital of East
Prussia, and now renamed Kaliningrad. The Baltic coast port was not only home to
the coveted Amber Room but remains the repository of 93 percent of the world's
known reserves of amber.
Although amber has always been in steady demand, the success of "Jurassic Park"
has heightened interest and the trinket stalls of local entrepreneurs are now a
magnet for the growing number of foreign visitors.
In Soviet times, Kalingrad, which lies between Lithuania and Poland, was a
military base and a no-go area for foreigners. Now there is nothing to stop
tourists taking a short bus ride from Gdansk - nothing, that is, except fear.
For the pretty amber gem has fallen prey to a gangster underworld.
The world market for amber, affected in part by "Jurassic Park," is thought to
be worth around $100 million per year - more than enough to draw the attention
of the Russian mafia. A combination of corruption and red tap makes it virtually
impossible to export Kaliningrad's amber legally, but it is still being smuggled
out in potato sacks and by other means, at a rate of between 150 and 200 tons a
year. The finest amber, even unpolished and unworked, is worth $10 a gram.
Contraband amber finds its way, via Lithuania, to Poland, where craftsmen have
traditionally fashioned it into prized jewelery.
Prudent foreign ealers buy their amber in Gdansk, taking advantage of Poland's
more relaxed regulations. More intrepid, or perhaps greedier, traders attempt to
buy amber at source.
Tales are told of buyers venturing to Kaliningrad with briefcases full of money
and never being seen again.
One who lived to tell his tale, anonymously, says the foreign number plates on
his car were his downfall. Held by a gang armed with sub-machine guns, he was
told to leave his car, and briefcase, and walk away. He didn't quibble.
In Gdansk, a British registered car that has been standing in a hotel car park
for the past eight months is said to belong to two buyers who chose to take the
Kaliningrad bus. They have never returned.
Kaliningrad is an exception to the general rule of post-Soviet independence -
remaining, albeit remotely, part of the Russian federation, a link that its
predominantly Russian population is determined to retain.
Loss of amber via the black market is blamed on the transparency of the border
with Lithuania, prompting extreme Russian nationalists to demand nullification
of the post-World War II agreement that ceded part of the coast of former East
Prussia to otherwise land-locked Lithuania. Such a move would deprive Lithuania
of its port, Klaipeda.
It is this context that amber is seen as partly responsible for Lithuanians
talking darkly of a provocation that would amount to nothing less than war.