Messenger - Vol. 2, No. 3, Page 16
Summer 1993
Forever Amber

     Leslie and Sarah Jastak-Burgess live in a world of beautiful things.
Step into their Greenville, Del., home and you may think you've entered a
museum of fine art. All of the component pieces have been artfully arranged
to complement each other, and it is not unusual to see English paintings
from the 18th century near 5,000-year-old Gandharan statuary from Pakistan.
From a late l7th-century Japanese, six-paneled screen to an African mask
from Cakuba (Zaire) to the Picasso hanging in the guest room, the Burgess
collection is both eclectic and intriguing.
     Burgess, who lived in Pakistan and Ghana for many years working to
establish branches of the Harvard Business School, had developed an
extensive collection of African masks and Russian icons with his late wife.
     Jastak-Burgess, Delaware '53 M.A., '63 Ph.D., living most of her life
in the Wilmington area and working as a practicing psychologist, developed
an equally extensive collection of fine art with her late husband.
     "We feel we are only temporary custodians of everything,"
Jastak-Burgess says of their collecting philosophy. "We collect beautiful
things to preserve them so that we can leave them to improve the quality of
life for the general public."
     The Burgesses carefully consider all options for the future of their
collections, leaving each portion to "the source that will do the best job
of continuing to preserve the work," Jastak-Burgess says.
     The University has been chosen to receive and to preserve one of the
Burgesses' most prized possessions-an extensive collection of amber thought
to be the largest collection in the world housed in one place.
     The 117-piece amber collection includes carvings, pendants, specimens,
necklaces, pipes, chalices, a cross, snuff bottles and netsuke carvings. It
is a much sought-after collection, and the Burgesses have had offers for it
from many museums, and even from a castle in Poland.
     There are tentative plans to display the collection, along with Greek
and Russian icons the Burgesses donated to the University a few years ago,
next spring at the University Gallery in Old College.
     The carvings in the collection range from a small, stylized elephant
weighing 16 grams to a large lady's head, deeply carved with a flower at
the forehead and long, curly hair interwoven with a garland of flowers,
that weighs nearly a kilogram.
     There are more than 250 colors of amber, and the Burgesses' collection
has pieces in many shades ranging from a creamy bone to yellow to fiery
tomato. Some pieces are opaque, others are translucent, depending on the
extent of oxidation of the piece.
     Amber is fossilized tree resin that dripped out of great, huge trees
in the Oligocene Epoch. Fifty to 60 million years later, this resin has
hardened and been compressed into a semiprecious stone. The very best is
mined along the Baltic coast in Poland, where most of the Burgesses' amber
is from, and in the mountains of the Dominican Republic.
     Ninety-nine percent of all pieces of amber are smaller than a finger
nail and carry a silky sheen when polished.
     In a recent article in Smithsonian magazine, John F. Ross writes that
the ancient Greeks "knew amber as electron" (the root of the modern word
electricity) or "substance of the sun," perhaps because of its color or the
fact that it collects a small negative charge when rubbed.
     In Neolithic times, Stone Age shamans carved amber figurines; amber
trade can be traced back to the Phoenicians; and much later, Roman warriors
wore mail studded with amber for luck, Ross writes.
     In the 18th century, the famous Amber Room, a chamber whose walls were
entirely covered in a jigsaw puzzle of 100,000 perfectly aligned,
intricately carved pieces of amber, was built for Prussian King Frederick
I. The room, eventually acquired as part of Nazi Germany's treasure hoard,
disappeared after World War II and has never been recovered.
     In addition to jewelry and carvings, amber is used in varnishes, paint
thinners and polishes. It also is useful to scientists because, many times,
insects, plant life and even drops of water from between 27 and 48 million
years ago have been trapped and preserved in amber. In this summer's
popular film Jurassic Park, dinosaur DNA taken from mosquitoes entombed in
amber made the revival of these extinct reptiles possible.
     One Baltic amber necklace with pendant in the Burgess collection, for
example, is extremely rare because it contains at least one insect in each
bead. Currently, the only other similar necklace on exhibit is in the
Chicago Museum of Natural History. In the 1920s, such necklaces were the
height of fashion. In Baltic amber, approximately one piece in a thousand
will have an insect inclusion. One bead in this necklace has at least 25
insects and, in the complete necklace, there are a total of over 136 insect
inclusions, along with other botanical debris such as bits of leaves. In
addition to collecting, the Burgesses are patrons of the arts, with Sarah
serving on the boards of the Delaware Symphony, the Grand Opera House,
Opera Delaware, the Delaware Institute for Arts in Education, the Delaware
Theatre Company and Girls Inc. The guest wing of the Burgesses' home is
often opened to accommodate visiting artists and conductors.
     Permanent guests in the Burgess home are two sleek and elegant
vizslas-Hungarian hunting dogs with rich, deep reddish coats-named, Zach
and, of course, Amber.
                                   -Beth Thomas