The Lost Amber Room
– Throughout history there have been many lost treasures. Some have been miraculously found like the gold treasure of Troy unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann and some remain lost in the sands of time, perhaps still awaiting discovery. One such lost treasure that has not yet been found again is the Amber Room, which is believed to be worth at least £150 million in today’s money. What makes the disappearance of the Amber Room so unusual is that it was a whole dismantled room that was lost and that it vanished fairly recently at the end of the Second World War. So this was no ancient mystery, where there are only a few tantalising clues or documents and sometimes even the existence of the treasure is disputed. The existence of the Amber Room is historically well documented and photographed, and we know that it was the Nazis who looted the Amber Room during World War II and removed it from Russia. But it is what happened to the Amber Room after the fall of the Nazis in 1945 that is so intriguing and so mysterious, for the whereabouts of the Amber Room has been lost despite all of the attempts to find it.
History of the Amber Room
Amber is an organic gemstone made from tree resin that was fossilized millions of years ago. Amber ranges in colour from warm yellows to rich tawny browns and is widely used in jewelry and decoration. However, to create an entire large room lined with precious amber panels backed with gold leaf and encrusted with gemstones was a hugely ambitious and creative endeavour. When it was completed the Amber Room comprised of more than 55 square metres of amber that weighed over six tonnes. The beginning of the Amber Room was in 1701 when Andreas Schluter, a German sculptor, created the concept of the Amber Room for the Prussian King Friedrich I. It was constructed in Friedrich’s Charlottenburg Palace by Gottfried Wolfram. The Russian Czar Peter the Great visited the Charlottenburg Palace a few years after the installation of the Amber Room and greatly admired it, so in 1716 Friedrich I’s son, King Friedrich Wilhelm I, gave it to the Czar to cement a Prussian-Russian alliance. The Amber Room was installed in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Russia in 1755 and subsequently moved to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. The new design of the Amber Room was conceived by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, court architect to Czarina Elizabeth of Russia and Frederick the Great sent further supplies of amber to complete the ambitious design.
What Happened to the Amber Room During World War II?
When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, those who were responsible for the treasures in the Russian palaces and museums made valiant attempt to hide what they could, but when they attempted to remove the Amber Room from the Catherine Palace they found that the amber covering on the walls had become too brittle and fragile to move. Their solution was to wallpaper over the amber in the hope that the Nazi invaders would not realise that the amber was there, but the Amber Room was such an iconic, well known world treasure that this measure proved futile. The Nazi soldiers found and disassembled the Amber Room within a very short time of taking over the Catherine Palace, and shipped the precious sheets of amber into crates and shipped them off to Konigsberg in East Prussia. It was housed in Konigsberg Castle and parts of the Amber room were put on display.
What Happened to the Amber Room When the Second World War Ended?
It is the mystery of what happened to the Amber Room in the confused, chaotic last year of World War II that no one has ever really solved. Was the Amber Room removed from Konigsberg Castle or was it hidden away somewhere in a vault within the ancient castle or in the town? There were reports that crates large enough to contain the sheets of amber were seen at Konigsberg railway station early in 1945, and there have been rumours that the Amber Room was hidden away in a disused mine. There was also a rumour that the Amber Room was put on board the ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff during Operation Hannibal, when the ship was being used to evacuate military personnel and civilians from Gotenhafen to Kiel who had been trapped by the oncoming Red Army. Unfortunately, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and sunk, with the tragic loss of over 9,000 souls. So if the Amber Room had been evacuated on this ship it is now at the bottom of the sea, and as the site of the wreck has been designated as a war memorial, it will never be open for exploration or salvage. At the very end of the war, the British Royal Air Force extensively bombed Konigsberg. Including the castle, so there is also the possibility that the Amber Room was destroyed during this bombing campaign or in the ensuing ground assaults.
Hunting For the Amber Room
The mysterious disappearance of the Amber Room has inevitably produced many groups of people who have hunted for the treasure, and some have even claimed to have found it, although none of the amber has ever been recovered. One of the most recent claims in 2008 that the Amber Room has been discovered comes from Deutschneudorf in the Ore Mountain area of South East Germany. A team of treasure hunters located an underground man-made cavern which they believed contained the Amber Room, and electromagnetic pulse measurements showed that the cavern also possibly contained over two tonnes of gold. There had been eye-witness reports that the Nazis had brought trains and trucks full of treasures, artwork and valuable goods into the area in the spring of 1945, although they had never been found again when the hostilities ended. However, the digging was halted, and no conclusive proof of the presence of the Amber Room in Deutschneudorf has ever been presented.
In January 2010 a Russian treasure hunter called Sergei Trifonov reported that he has found a World War II bunker that had been used by the German High Command in Konigsberg during 1945 that he believes may contain the fabled Amber Room. The bunker is situated around 1,000 metres from Konigsberg Castle, which was demolished in 1967, where it is believed that the Amber Room was housed during the course of World War II, and excavations have already uncovered a brick lined room.
Only time and further excavations will prove whether or not the Amber Room was hidden in either Deutschneudorf or Konigsberg. If it is ever found again, the amber panels and precious metal decoration of the Amber Room will need careful restoration, or maybe will even be so badly damaged that it could never again be recreated in the Russian palace. However, if you do want to see what the Amber Room would have looked like, you can go and visit a recreation of the Amber Room that was completed in 2003 at the Catherine Palace Museum just outside St Petersburg. It is to be hoped that the Amber Room will be found one day, and not like so many of the world’s treasures lost forever, so once more we can marvel at this incredibly crafted Baroque masterpiece.