PW: How did you meet Adrian Levy, your partner and coauthor on The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure?
We met in 1994 when I joined the newsroom of the Sunday Times in London. Adrian was already working there for about a year, and I was allocated a space opposite him on the same desk. We worked completely different areas for about two years, but we both had aspirations to work outside the U.K. as foreign correspondents on much more investigation-based stories. I'd done a lot of foreign reporting for my previous paper, and Adrian had done lots of investigative reporting at the Sunday Times. And in May 1996, we caused a great deal of excitement in the newsroom by resigning on the same day.
What put you on the trail of the Amber Room?
We started reading articles coming out of Russia about the government's announcements that they were nearing completion of the restoration. We had a vague understanding of it being a missing treasure lost during the Second World War, and we made a few phone calls, because we were intrigued by what had happened to the original Amber Room. The Russian authorities proved very reluctant to discuss that, constantly putting us off and telling us we should come see the reconstruction when it was ready. We felt there was much more to the story than was in their press releases, especially given the range of wild theories we found about what had happened to the original room, which were still leading to digs all over Germany and Kaliningrad [formerly Königsberg], even though none of them seemed to connect to any real evidence.
How good was your Russian and German before you started your research?
Russian, none. We relied entirely on our fantastic translators and picked up some Russian as we went along. Our German was passable, but we hired top-rate translators to double-check everything we translated. Everything was checked and rechecked by three sets of people in both countries.
Did the mercenary nature of many of your sources catch you off guard?
I don't suppose we knew what to expect. We'd both been to Russia a couple times on other stories, but we'd never had to try to sniff out archival material before. So we were both a bit surprised and stumped about what to do the first couple of months we were there, because literally everyone told us, "No, we can't help you," or "Yes, we have information, but you can't have it unless you've got vast amounts of money." About six weeks into our first trip, we almost felt like giving up, but it was then that we met two women, professors at what had been Leningrad University, who opened up a back channel to the curators who'd worked around the palace in St. Petersburg for years and years.
About how far into the search did you start becoming convinced about your conclusions?
When we were doing our earliest research, still dabbling with the idea of writing the book, we were mostly looking things up on the Internet, because there's hundreds of Web sites about the Amber Room and the theories and the various searches. There were plenty of wonderful stories, but none of them seemed to match what was already known to be the truth about the room up to its transferral to Königsberg. So we were both quite skeptical, but for the first six months, we held on to the hope that we'd find that one clue in the archives that would actually lead us to something no one else had discovered, so we could find the room and become millionaires.
What's the reaction to your conclusions been in Russia?
We've kept it a bit close to our chests so far. But we've recently seen a DVD put together by the Catherine Palace for the restoration of the Amber Room, and they vehemently disagree with us, claiming we don't know what we're talking about and that we didn't have access to all the information they have. We know that's not true, because they don't really have very much material, and everything they do have appears on that DVD. But we haven't really gone out there yet to solicit responses. They'll probably either ignore us or try to destroy our conclusions. We'll have to wait and see.