Skip directly to content

White Collar and Catherine the Great's Music Box

on Mon, 06/13/2011 - 00:00

On the USA Network drama White Collar, convicted forger, conman and art thief Neal Caffrey makes a deal with the FBI agent who arrested him—instead of serving the remaining years of his prison sentence in jail, Caffrey will assist Peter Burke in the investigation of various “white collar” crimes. While the premise is a classic narrative about two polar opposites forced into a reluctant partnership that develops into a more meaningful rapport as the series goes along, the first two seasons of White Collar also contained a serialized plotline running through numerous episodes.

The catalyst for Neal Caffrey suggesting the alliance between criminal and law officer, for instance, was girlfriend Kate Moreau unceremoniously ending their relationship while the conman was still behind bars. Despite having only four months left on his prison sentence, Caffrey engineered an escape from his maximum security cell in order to salvage his bond with Kate. Instead of a reconciliation, he found an empty wine bottle and the prospect of spending another four years in jail instead. Thus the pilot episode of White Collar begins with the newly-formed partnership of Neal Caffrey and Peter Burke, allowing the convicted felon to find some sort of freedom on the streets of New York City.

Caffrey had other motives, however, chief amongst them the need to still find his lost love. Although he did not know it at the time, his search would lead to a priceless item from the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” a sunken German U-boat and a treasure of lost Nazi stolen art. It was also a journey filled with love and loss, as well as tints of fate as the main actors in his life all had a secret connection to a mystery that was over 60 years old. And in many ways, it all began with a game of Three-Card Monte.

During the first handful of episodes of White Collar, Neal Caffrey follows clues left on the discarded wine bottle and hidden within written messages to discover that Kate Moreau had not left him of her on accord. She was in essence “kidnapped” instead by a group of conspirators within the ranks of the FBI in order to force Caffrey into relinquishing a piece of art that he had once stolen in exchange for her freedom. “Catherine the Great had a room in her palace in St. Petersburg made entirely out of amber,” Neal Caffrey explains to Peter Burke. Both the room and the palace were looted during World War II by Nazis. “One of the things they took was an amber music box.”

In the opening pages of their book The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure (Walker & Company, 2004), British investigative journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy recite the history of what was dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” A room paneled with amber was originally conceived by designer Andreas Schluter as a way to impress the wife of Friedrich I of Prussia and thus remain in good graces with the newly established monarchy. Construction of the project outlived the sovereign couple, however, and successor Friedrich Wilhelm I was more of a soldier than art lover. When Peter the Great of Russia visited Prussia in 1716, Wilhelm presented him with the amber panels as a gift.

Peter the Great intended for the room to be built in his own palace, but construction was again incomplete when yet another reigning monarch met his demise. After a brief stay in the Winter Palace by order of Empress Elizabeth, it was eventually moved to the Catherine Palace. Gold leaf and mirrors were added to compliment the amber walls of what became known as the Amber Room and the chamber itself formed a singular work of art. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June of 1941, all valuables were immediately ordered out of St. Petersburg. While crate loads of artifacts where vacated to the remote regions of Siberia, the curator of the Catherine Palace was forced to “hide” the Amber Room behind hurriedly erected wallpaper. The Germans saw through the façade, however, and removed the Amber Room panels and contents to the East Prussian village of Konigsberg.

What happened after that is of great mystery and speculation. The bulk of The Amber Room is thus an investigation into the fate of the stolen chamber, and contains narratives on various attempts to locate the lost room in Soviet-controlled territories and those of both East and West Germany in the decades that followed. Salt mines were excavated, hidden bunkers searched and millions of dollars were spent—but to no avail. Authors Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy concluded that the Amber Room panels were still in Konigsberg when the Soviet Army arrived in 1945 and were subsequently destroyed in a fire that consumed Konigsberg Castle shortly thereafter. Despite sound conjecture, however, there is no tangible evidence, and the mystery of the lost Amber Room remains one of intrigue and the source of desire for “treasure hunters” the world over.

Small items within the original Amber Room in St. Petersburg have popped up through the years, including a chest of drawers that a West Berlin housewife was unknowingly using to store her tablecloths and napkins. Within the mythology of White Collar, meanwhile, a music box of amber also survived. During season one of the series, Neal Caffrey draws zig-zagged lines over a map of Europe to represent the rumored journey that the priceless item took after it was pilfered by the Germans. One of it stops was at the Amalienbog Palace in Copenhagen, where conventional wisdom states that it was stolen by Caffrey. In actuality, the music box slipped through his fingers and eventually found its way to the Italian Consulate in New York City.

Neal Caffrey was finally able to acquire the piece in the season one finale of White Collar, but lost Kate Moreau forever in the process when she died in a plane explosion at the end of the installment. Season two of the series was thus devoted to unraveling the mystery of the music box.

In many ways, the path that Neal Caffrey found himself on during the course of White Collar began years earlier when he stumbled upon a game of Three-Card Monte shortly after arriving in New York City. The classic “find the lady” con was co-run by his future mentor, friend and occasional comic relief Mozzie. Impressed by Caffrey’s own slight-of-hand abilities, Mozzie suggests a long con where Neal Caffrey infiltrates the inner circle of billionaire hedge-fund operator Vincent Adler. As recited in the flashback episode “Forging Bonds,” Caffrey not only gets close to Adler but his assistant Kate Moreau as well. He also meets fellow grifter Alex Hunter, herself obsessed with finding the amber music box of Catherine the Great. While Adler disappeared before the con was completed—his entire company was built upon a giant ponzi scheme—all of the major players in Neal Caffrey’s life were now present. Like some mystical force of fate, they were all also tied to the mystery of the music box.

In addition to the many crimes against humanity that were carried out during World War II, Adolph Hitler was also intent on pilfering artwork from the various countries that his army invaded. “By April 1945 all Nazi hope had evaporated and turned into the certainty of total defeat,” Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy write in The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure. “At this moment the Nazis no longer searched for palaces, castles or monasteries (to display the items) but for hiding places where art might be stored and remain undiscovered for a certain length of time. Mines not castles. Caves not monasteries. Bunkers not safes.”

And in the world of White Collar, a U-boat headed for Argentina that was sunk off the shores of New York City instead. “I’ve known about the sub since I was a little girl,” Alex Hunter tells Neal Caffrey in the season two finale. “Grandpa, he’d take me to Coney Island when no one else was around and he’d point out to the water and tell me the greatest treasure in the world was right out there, just below the waves. He said the Nazis collected the most beautiful things in the world, then put those things in a submarine. When it was crossing the Atlantic, it went down and no one could find it. He encoded the SOS antenna design into the music box. He figured he’d come to America, he’d build a receiver and he’d find the sub. But he fled Germany after the war and the box was lost.”

While Alex Hunter’s grandfather was a German radio operator who worked in the country’s U-boat headquarters, Vincent Adler’s father was the only surviving crewman of the sunken submarine. The former hedge fund manager had spent a lifetime searching for the wreckage, using Kate Moreau as bait to entangle Neal Caffrey into the mix and having her killed in order to protect his secret. Adler eventually found the sub and its billion-dollar collection of Rembrandts, Picassos and Salvador Dalis, but did not live long enough to truly take possession—setting up a new premise for the third season of White Collar in the process.

It is historical fact that Nazi Germany attempted to steal the classic works of art scattered across Europe, as is the lost mystery of the Amber Room of Catherine the Great. During the first two seasons of White Collar, the USA Network drama was able to mold these facts with fiction and create its own mythology involving a music box, sunken German U-boat and a priceless collection of artwork pilfered by the Nazis. The series added a dash of destiny as well, for in the end all of the major players in the life of Neal Caffrey came together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, their backgrounds intertwined and fates dictated by events that were decades in the making.

In the hands of White Collar, it also made for great storytelling.

Anthony Letizia

Follow Geek Pittsburgh: Facebook - Twitter - RSS Feed