A room designed and built as a celebration of peace disappeared in the midst of war, leaving art historians and treasure hunters baffled more than 70 years later. The ultimate fate of the Amber Room, once called the Eighth Wonder of the World, is one of the great mysteries of the art world.
Originally constructed at the beginning of the 18th century, the Amber Room was stolen by Nazis during World War II. What happened to it after that remains unknown to this day. Some say it was accidentally destroyed by Allied bombs near the end of the war. Others believe it is in the hold of a ship on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, while some still hold out hope that the Amber Room is intact somewhere, awaiting discovery.
The construction of the Amber Room was commissioned by Frederick I, King of Prussia, in 1701. Designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schluter and built by Gottfried Wolfram, master craftsman to the Danish court, the Amber Room was originally intended for the Charlottenburg Palace. It was actually installed in the nearby Berlin City Palace, though it wasn't fated to remain there long.
The Russian Tsar Peter the Great vociferously admired the Amber Room on a visit to the palace. In 1716, it was given to him as a gift by Frederick’s son, Frederick William I, then King of Prussia, as a celebration of peace between Prussia and Russia and a symbol of their alliance against Sweden.
Shipped to Russia in 18 boxes, the Amber Room was installed in the Winter House in St. Petersburg for a time before being moved to the Catherine Palace in 1755 at the order of Czarina Elizabeth. Throughout the 18th century, the room was expanded and reworked, including by Italian designer Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, who used new amber shipped in from Berlin to expand the room. At its largest, the room covered more than 180 square feet and contained over 6 tons of amber.
Most of the amber came in the form of massive wall panels backed by gold leaf, which historians estimate would be worth more than $140 million in today’s dollars. Unfortunately, nobody knows where the Amber Room is today. For that, you can probably thank the Nazis.
In 1941, three million German soldiers entered what was then the Soviet Union. Part of their operations in the field included looting valuable artwork and cultural artifacts, especially those which, by their reasoning, rightly belonged to Germany in the first place. This included the Amber Room.
Attempts had been made to save the unusual treasure. At first, curators at the Catherine Palace attempted to remove the amber panels as the German forces drew near. However, the amber had grown brittle with time. When a speedy removal proved unfeasible, the curators settled instead for covering up the panels with hastily-applied wallpaper. Of course, the Nazis were well aware of the room’s whereabouts; the wallpaper didn’t throw them off the scent for long.
Within 36 hours, German soldiers had disassembled the entire room with the help of two experts. The Amber Room was then shipped to Konigsberg Castle, where it was put on display. It arrived in Konigsberg in October of 1941, and within a month local newspapers were announcing its exhibition at the castle.
In 1943, with Allied forces approaching, Hitler gave the order that “cultural goods of priority” should be moved from Konigsberg. What happened to the Amber Room after that remains a mystery. We do know that in 1944 Allied bombing raids destroyed much of the city, including Konigsberg Castle. Was the Amber Room still inside? Some think so; others believe that the Nazis had time to once again box up the room and get it out of the area before the bombers arrived.
Over the years, many people have tried to get to the bottom of the mystery of the vanishing Amber Room. It has served as a plot device in novels and television shows, but its ultimate fate remains a mystery.
A variety of conspiracy theories have cropped up about the location of the Amber Room. One such tale claims that the room carries a curse, citing a handful of untimely deaths, most notably that of former German soldier Georg Stein. Stein was murdered in a Bavarian forest in 1987, purportedly while searching for the whereabouts of the Amber Room.
In 1997, a group of “art detectives” found one of the room’s panels, but the owner was the son of a dead soldier and didn’t know where the panel had come from. No other trace of the room has ever been found.
Whatever the fate of the original Amber Room, one thing we know is that it has since been recreated. Reconstruction began in 1979 and took 25 years to complete, but the newly-restored Amber Room is still on display at the Tsarkoye Selo State Museum Reserve near St. Petersburg.
Featured photo: Alchetron