In the grand palace of Catherine I, the second wife of Peter the Great and Empress of Russia, there once existed a magnificent golden room adorned from floor to ceiling with precious amber, gold and other semi-precious stones. For nearly two hundred years the Amber Room dazzled visitors to the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg. But then the Nazis invaded, and the Amber Room, with its 6 tons of amber valued between $140–500 million, vanished without a trace.
The Amber Room was originally installed at the Berlin City Palace, the winter residence of Frederick I, the first King of Prussia. The room was designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and constructed by the Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram, and later by Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turau from Danzig. When Peter the Great of Russia paid a visit in 1716 and showed interest in the Amber Room, King Frederick I's son Frederick William I, who prized his military prowess over his late father’s artistic endeavors, gifted the room to Peter to cement the Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.
Hand-colored photograph of the original Amber Room, 1931. Photo credit: public domain
The Russians installed the Amber Room in the Winter House in St. Petersburg before Peter’s daughter, Czarina Elizabeth, decided to move the Room to the Catherine Palace in 1755. The room was restored and enlarged throughout the 18th century. It became Catherine the Great’s private meditation chamber and a gathering room for her intimate circle, and later Alexander II (1818-1881) used the Room as a trophy room for his amber collection.
In 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and began looting tens of thousands of art treasures across the country. They had already set their eyes on the Amber Room, which they believed rightfully belonged to the Germans. The curators of the Catherine Palace tried to disassemble and hide the Amber Room, but over the years the amber had dried out and started to crumble. So a half-hearted attempt was made at hiding the room behind a wallpaper. But it didn’t fool the Nazis. Within 36 hours they tore down the room and shipped it to Königsberg, Germany, in present-day Kaliningrad, where it was reinstalled in Königsberg's castle museum.
Königsberg Castle and Courtyard, c. 1900. Photo credit: United States Library of Congress/public domain
Towards the end of the war, as Soviet forces pressed towards the city, the Germans dismantled the room once again, packed it into crates and hid it. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets bombed the castle to ruins. Based on reports that the crates containing the panels of Amber Room was hidden within the castle itself, the Soviets concluded that the Amber Room was destroyed.
But the story of the Amber Room didn’t rest there. Rumor persist that the Nazis managed to move the crates out of the castle into some secret location before the Soviets bombed the city. There are several theories about what may have happened to the precious amber crates. The most popular theory is that it still hidden in some old bunker.
In 1979, the Soviet government began to construct a replica of the Amber Room based on original drawings and old black-and-white photographs. The project took 24 years to complete, largely because it required artisans to re-learn the old and forgotten art of amber craftsmanship. A generous donation by a German company helped financed the project.
While a replica Amber Room is back in its rightful home, the search for the original will continue to grip the imagination of historians and treasure hunters. Just two months ago (June 2016), some researchers were digging at some old German bunkers in Poland. Their initial claim that they had located the Amber crates created a lot of buzz in the media. But the trail has gone cold once again.
Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg. Photo credit: Florstein/Wikimedia
Photo credit: Larry Koester/Flickr
Photo credit: Larry Koester/Flickr
Photo credit: Byron Howes/Flickr
Photo credit: Ron Kikuchi/Flickr
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