There have been various relics and treasures lost to us throughout history. Often irreplaceable and heavily imbued with both monetary and historical value, we are more often than not forced to merely speculate on where on earth these lost treasures have disappeared to. While it may seem reasonable and even unavoidable that some artifacts may become lost to time on occasion, how does one lose a whole room? In the case of one room fashioned of gold and amber at an enormous expense of time and money, created to be unparalleled in majesty and beauty, we have just such a case. The Amber Room of Germany was one of mankind’s great treasures and upon its baffling disappearance also one of our great mysteries.
The Amber Room began its life in 1701, when it was designed by the German architect Andreas Schlüter, and construction on the ornate wall panels was begun at the Charlottenburg Palace in Prussia, which was the residence of the first King of Prussia, Friedrich I. The King’s wife at the time, Sophie Charlotte, had requested it be erected within the palace. The room was actually mostly built by an amber specialist by the name of Gottfried Wolfram, of the Royal Court of Denmark. Wolfram worked on the room until 1707, after which the two amber masters Gottfried Turau and Ernst Schacht continued construction and completed it in 1709.
The room was one of the most amazing masterpieces of 18th century craftsmanship and artistry, and must surely have been a spectacle to behold. Upon the walls of the room were enormous panels fashioned from tons of the purest Danish amber, which was encrusted with various gemstones and inlaid with gold. Upon these sweeping panels of gold and gem covered amber were installed ornate mirrors on gold fittings that were meticulously decorated with more gold and pieces of amber, as well as jewel emblazoned mosaics trimmed with even more gold. The overall impression was of a shimmering room completely made of gold and amber that was said to blaze into a fiery brilliance when lit up by the room’s 565 candles. It was purportedly such an awe-inspiring site that it was often referred to as “The 8th Wonder of the World.”
When Peter the Great, who was an ally of Friedrich I, visited the room he was astonished and greatly impressed. Friedrich I, looking to strengthen his alliance with Russia against Sweden, subsequently offered the room as a gift to Peter the Great in 1716. The large decorative panels of The Amber Room were shipped to Russia in 18 gigantic boxes, after which they were first installed as part of an art collection in St. Petersburg at a place called the Winter House. In 1755, Czarina Elizabeth had the room moved to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, where it would later be used as a meditation chamber for the Czarina and a gathering place for Catherine the Great.
The space at the Catherine Palace where The Amber Room was erected was a larger room than it had previously occupied, and thus went under a redesign by the Italian designer Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli to further expand it to both fill in the extra space and enhance its magnificence even more. More gold, amber, and gems were brought in, and when renovations were eventually completed, The Amber Room was comprised of around 6 tons of amber and gems, was 17 meters (55.8 feet ) in length, and covered around 55 square meters with glittering beauty. It has been estimated by historians as having a total value of around 150 million dollars in today’s money. Truly this must have been one of the most breathtaking works of art in human history.
The Amber Room was passed down to subsequent rulers in Russia, for whom it remained a priceless showcase of the palace and a source of pride until 1941, when WWII brought with it hordes of hostile Germans looking to loot and kill. The last days of The Amber Room came with the beginning of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, which entailed the deployment of millions of German troops into the Soviet Union. What followed was the desecration and looting of tens of thousands of irreplaceable paintings, sculptures, and other works of art, jewels, and priceless artifacts. This was an orgy of looting unlike anything that had ever been witnessed, and massive amounts of cultural heritage were being devoured by the Nazi scourge at a frightening pace. This relentless ransacking force was soon at the doorstep of Pushkin, and the majestic beauty of the Amber room was imperiled.
The curators and officials of the Catherine Palace realized the gravity of the situation. As bombs exploded throughout the city, they frantically tried to disassemble the Amber Room in order to move it elsewhere and therefore prevent it from being looted. As they did so, the amber panels began to crumble due to having weakened over the years. Hesitant to cause further damage to the priceless artifact, desperate officials ended up hiding the panels under wallpaper, gauze, and cotton in a last ditch effort to keep it out of German hands. The ruse did not fool the marauding forces, who quickly discovered the famous prize.
The Germans were extremely efficient in their ability to dismantle the Amber Room. Within 36 hours it had been packed into 27 crates and moved to the Baltic Coast city of Königsberg, presently Kaliningrad, and put on display. In 1943 it was stored at Königsberg Castle in a museum, where it became a favorite of the museum’s director, Alfred Rohde. Rhode had a fascination with amber, and reportedly spent a good amount of time studying the intricate craftsmanship of the panels. As the end of WWII loomed, plans were put into place to pack the panels into crates and store them away from the approaching Allied forces. These efforts were apparently too slow, because soon there were Allied warplanes buzzing across the sky and pummeling the city below into rubble with their bombs. Königsberg Castle was smashed to pieces, along with most of the rest of the city, and so it was presumed that the Amber Room had been destroyed as well. The Amber Room has never been seen since.
The official story is that the Amber Room had become just another casualty of war, and for many that was the end of that. However, over the years it was speculated that perhaps it had not been destroyed. Rumors abounded of people sighting the missing panels or knowing someone who had had a hand in their removal. What in fact happened to it in those final days of the war is a matter of opinion, and there are various theories on what the ultimate fate of the Amber Room was.
Besides the obvious idea that the room was in fact destroyed by Allied forces, others have speculated that the panels were indeed moved as originally planned. The plan at Königsberg Castle to pack the panels away was thought up at the end of 1943, and the castle wasn’t destroyed by bombing until August of the following year, giving the Germans plenty of time to have the Amber Room moved. The trail the panels may have taken is uncertain. Some speculate they remained somewhere in the city, hidden away from the destruction. Others think they were loaded onto a ship to be transported, after which the ship sank and brought the Amber Room to the bottom of the ocean where it still remains. Still others believe the panels were successfully moved out of the city to join the myriad of other looted treasures, many of which are still missing. Other bizarre theories include the idea that Stalin had made a fake Amber Room which is the one the Germans stole while the real one remained untouched. Others say that the room simply got misplaced, and is sitting in its crates in some anonymous warehouse somewhere, lost and forgotten, with no one being none the wiser. It has also been suggested that some secret cabal has taken possession of the room and guards it from scrutiny to this day. Whatever it was that happened to this priceless treasure, it has never been seen in public again and its whereabouts remain a mystery.
Experts have ascertained that the fragile nature of the materials used in the Amber Room’s construction mean that it has certainly deteriorated and decayed into an unsalvageable state by now. Even before it was stolen, the room had allegedly fallen into a state of disrepair, with many of the pieces and designs falling out or otherwise degraded and in need of restoration. It is believed that even if it were to be found, it would be in a state heavily in need of restoration, possibly unsalvageable, and certainly unworthy of being displayed in its former glory. Nevertheless, since the Amber Room’s disappearance, there has been sporadic tantalizing evidence of it throughout the ensuing years in the form of pieces and shards allegedly from the panels. One of the more promising of these came in 1997, when German art detectives heard that someone was trying to sell what they claimed to be a piece of the Amber Room. When the office of the suspicious party’s lawyer was raided, detectives uncovered a mosaic panel from the room. The seller of the item claimed that he had had no idea as to the object’s origin. It was later found that the seller’s father had been a German soldier during the war, so it is likely that the pieces were stolen by the man at some point during the Amber Room’s removal by German forces or transit to its new location.
Several large scale searches for evidence of the Amber Room’s continued existence have been launched over the years, which while offering up sometimes tantalizing clues have all failed to actually produce any of the missing panels. One of the more recent searches that has actually claimed to have found it is that of a group of German treasure hunters who claimed to have tracked its location down to an underground bunker in the German city of Auerswalde that was originally designed to house huge, railway mounted cannons that were among the largest ever made. The team claims to have found documents showing that the bunker was the destination for a highly secretive, clandestine shipment involving a large amount of transport trucks and originating in Königsberg, the last known location of the Amber Room. The document allegedly details how over one hundred Soviet POWs were assigned the task of unloading the trucks and moving whatever precious cargo it was down into the subterranean depths of the bunker. The team speculates that the mysterious shipment must be none other than the fabled missing Amber Room. The team managed to pinpoint the location of the bunker through the presence of a ventilation shaft leading down to it. Although the bunker has yet to be opened and examined, the treasure hunters are confident they have finally cracked the mystery. It remains to be seen how much truth their story holds.
The hunt for the Amber Room has had other bizarre attributes over the years. It is said that a curse surrounds the lost relic, and that all those who attempt to locate it will be beset by death and misfortune. There have indeed been accounts of those concerned with the Amber Room meeting untimely ends. A Russian intelligence officer by the name of General Gusev died in a horrible car crash shortly after talking with a journalist about the supposed whereabouts of the Amber Room, and in 1987 an avid Amber Room hunter by the name of Georg Stein was viciously murdered in a Bavarian forest after spending years trying to track down its location. The murder has never been solved. Is this all just coincidence, or are there darker forces at work?
The Amber Room does exist presently, in a sense. In 1979, efforts to reconstruct the magnificent room were begun at Tsarskoye Selo. Over 25 years, the room was meticulously recreated in as much detail as was possible. Great efforts were made to duplicate the original using illustrations and old photographs of the room. Millions of dollars were spent, and Russian craftsmen spent decades working on the project until in 2003, when it was inaugurated at the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The inauguration marked the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg and was dedicated by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The room is on display at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve outside of St. Petersburg, but there is certainly something missing in the presentation. The recreation has been said to lack a certain grandeur and elegance that the original most certainly possessed. When looking upon the recreation, while indeed impressive, it is hard to imagine that it conjures up the same feelings of awe and beauty as the original must have once done.
For now, this recreation is all we have. Anyone who wishes to bask in the glory of the original has no other choice. But one still wonders. What became of one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring creations in human history? Does the answer lie somewhere out there? If it does, no on one has found it yet.