The world famous Amber Room was a work of singular baroque exuberance. Embellished with over six tons of crafted amber, it represented more than a decade of work by some of Europe’s finest artisans. In fact, in 2016 it was estimated to be worth over $500 million but its whereabouts are presently unknown.
“When the work was finished, in 1770, the room was dazzling,” wrote Grigorii Kozlov and Konstantin Akinsha, two Russian art historians specializing in the location of looted European masterpieces. “It was illuminated by 565 candles whose light was reflected in the warm gold surface of the amber and sparkled in the mirrors, gilt, and mosaics.”
Stolen from Soviet Russia by Nazi Germany, the Amber Room disappeared in the chaos of the Second World War. Since then, many theories have attempted to explain exactly what happened to it. Have a trio of treasures hunters from Germany just solved the 70-year-old mystery?
In fact, the Amber Room was just one of many artistic treasures plundered by the Nazis. Hitler, who was a failed artist before entering politics, considered himself an art aficionado and ordered military units, called the Kunstschutz, to steal works of art across Europe.
Ultimately, the dictator intended to assemble his collection in a museum of art in Linz, Austria. His looted treasure included paintings, books, ceramics and religious art, as well as silver, gold and various items of cultural patrimony. However, the Amber room of the Tsars was the single most valuable item that he pilfered.
Originally intended for the residence of King Frederick of Prussia – the Charlottenburg Palace – the Amber room was begun in 1701 at the request of Sophie Charlotte, his wife. Prussia was at the time a largely Germanic empire, with a huge territory in Europe. The room was designed by Andreas Schlüter, a sculptor from Germany and put together by Gottfried Wolfram, an amber craftsman from Denmark.
However, upon completion, the Amber Room was not installed in Charlottenburg Palace, but moved instead to the Berlin City Palace. Peter the Great, the Tsar of Russia had fallen in love with the dazzling room during a trip to the Prussian capital. And in 1716, Frederick William I, the son of King Frederick, gifted it to the Tsar to seal a Russo-Prussian alliance.
In Russia, the Amber Room was reworked, renovated and added to an art collection in the Winter House in Saint Petersburg. In 1755, Empress Elisabeth, the Tsar’s daughter, moved it to the Imperial family home in Pushkin – the Catherine Palace – where it served as a place for meditation, as well as a social room for Catherine the Great.
Almost two centuries later, on June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In Pushkin, curators scrambled to move the Amber Room to a safe place. However, the precious amber had desiccated over the centuries, leaving it brittle and crumbly. In fact, the curators believed that they could not move the room without destroying it, so they tried to hide it by covering it with wallpaper.
Or course, the Nazis were not fooled. Under the watchful eyes of two specialists, soldiers from Germany’s Army Group North dismantled and packed up the Amber Room in less than 36 hours. It reached Königsberg, East Prussia on October 14, 1941. And a month later, a local newspaper heralded its opening to the public at Königsberg Castle.
But as the war drew to a close, the stolen loot became imperiled. In August 1944, the Royal Air Force bombarded the city. And in January 1945, Hitler decided the art should be moved. However, Königsberg’s civil administrator had escaped from the area just weeks before Germany’s defeat. Then, finally, in April 1945, the Red Army advanced into the city, pummeling it with artillery fire.
What happened after the taking of the city is not certain, but now three treasure hunters – Peter Lohr, 71, a georadar specialist, Günter Eckardt, 67, a scientist and Leonhard Blume, 73, a homeopath – believe that they have found the long lost Amber Room. According to them, it is concealed inside a network of tunnels beneath a cave in eastern Germany. In fact, Nazi scientists once used the tunnels but no record of their activities has been found.
Using ground-penetrating radar, the team was able to locate and examine a subterranean complex beneath Prince’s Cave near the town of Hartenstein, not far from the border with the Czech Republic. “We discovered a very big, deep and long tunnel system,” Blume told Britain’s The Times newspaper. “And we detected something that we think could be a booby trap.”
“The hideout is underground… above the railway line, where in April 1945 a train from Königsberg was stopped,” radar expert Lohr told the U.K’s Daily Express, implying that the room may have been transported on it. Indeed, marks on trees seem to indicate that crates were moved at the site using steel ropes. As such, something does appear to be stashed in the tunnels near Hartenstein, but no one yet knows what.
“We want to go on but it’s all very complicated and we need a sponsor,” Blume told British newspaper The Independent. However, hopeful treasure hunters have been seeking the room for decades, including the Soviet secret police, who failed to find it after ten years of searching. Indeed, there is no consensus that the room even exists at all.
The conventional theory – which is supported by the 2004 investigation of British journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark – is that the room was never moved from Königsberg Castle. In fact, it was probably destroyed during British or Soviet attacks on the city. The same conclusion was reached independently by Soviet investigators after the war.
According to a post-war report by the lead Soviet investigator, Alexander Brusov, which was retrieved from Russian National Archive, “The Amber Room was destroyed between April 9 and 11, 1945.” In fact, those dates refer to the Battle of Königsberg, which concluded with the Soviet occupation of the city.
Meanwhile, another popular, if equally pessimistic theory based on eyewitness reports, suggests that the Germans safely transported the room to a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. But on January 30, 1945, when it sailed from the port of Gdynia, in what is now Poland, the ship was attacked by a Soviet submarine. Devastated by torpedo fire, it sank to the bottom of the sea.
Of course, there are also theories claiming that the Amber Room was never destroyed. For example, according to a documentary broadcast in Germany in 2003, a brigadier called Albert Popp had the room quietly dismantled at the request of his uncle and Nazi Regional Leader, Martin Mutschmann. It is, according to the documentary, currently hidden in an old mine in Nordhausen, Germany.
Ultimately, the mystery of the Amber Room may never be solved. But anyone who wants to experience its sublime beauty can visit an exquisite replica in Tsarskoye Selo, Russia, which was constructed over 24 years with the expertise of Russian and German amber artisans. The room may not be an original, but it glows like authentic treasure.