The Amber Room was once considered the eighth wonder of the world, and today its whereabouts are considered one of the greatest mysteries of the art world.
Quite literally a room panelled entirely in amber and backed with gold leaf, the room was installed in Russia’s Catherine Palace as a gift from the Prussian King in 1716, where it remained until it was looted by German soldiers during World War Two.
After the war, the mystery of the Amber Room’s whereabouts deepened as assorted men and women made contradictory claims and obfuscations about its last known whereabouts.
Still unsolved today, the mystery of the Amber Room continues to attract treasure hunters and art historians even now. Here are 10 facts about the priceless artwork.
1. The Amber Room originated in Prussia
Made of fossilised resin, amber has long been an expensive and sought-after substance. Prussia introduced laws to protect the precious material in the 13th century.
In 1701, work on panels for an ‘Amber Room’ began, intended for Charlottenburg Palace, the residence of the King of Prussia.
The finest craftsmen were employed to work on its design and execution, including specialised amber masters brought in from Danzig. Instead of being installed in Charlottenburg, the panels eventually ended up in the Berlin City Palace for a short period.
2. The Amber Room was given as a gift to Peter the Great
On a visit to Berlin in 1716, Peter the Great had admired the panels of the Amber Room, and in a move of supreme diplomacy, Frederick, King of Prussia, presented the Amber Room to the Tsar, securing a Russo-Prussian alliance which would go on to help them in a war against Sweden.
3. It was Empress Elizabeth who eventually had the room installed in the Catherine Palace
After years of reworking, Empress Elizabeth decided the Amber Room should be installed at the Catherine Palace, where the Russian Imperial family often spent their summers. The room was reworked and then expanded by an Italian architect. By the time it was installed, the Amber Room comprised over 6 tonnes of amber.
4. Visitors dubbed the Amber Room the ‘eighth wonder of the world’
Not only was the amber itself a marvel, but the additional mosaics, gold and candelabras, whose flickering light helped illuminate the amber, added to the atmosphere. Visitors to the palace were in awe of the room’s beauty, and it was dubbed the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ as a result.
5. It was removed in October 1941
As the Germans marched further and further into Russia, curators attempted to disassemble the Amber Room so that it could be hidden and therefore kept safe.
Unfortunately, however, they had little time, and the amber had become brittle, meaning that without serious expertise and manpower, it would be impossible to remove without the amber crumbling. Instead, the curators hung wallpaper over the amber in an attempt to disguise the room’s true value.
The Nazis were not fooled: when they reached the Catherine Palace, they disassembled the entire room in 36 hours under the watchful eye of experts, before transporting it to Königsberg in East Prussia.
6. Its last known sighting was at Königsberg Castle
By November 1941, the Amber Room was established at Königsberg Castle, where it was on display. However, Königsberg was heavily fire-bombed by the RAF in August 1944, and it suffered further damage as the Red Army approached in the spring of 1945.
Hitler had ordered the looted treasures kept at Königsberg Castle to be moved as the Red Army approached in January 1945, but it’s thought that this was never actioned as the chain of command disintegrated before the orders could be carried out.
7. The Russians sent a curator to Königsberg to try and locate the Amber Room in late 1945
Anatoly Kuchumov, a young curator, had been tasked with the evacuation of treasures from Leningrad in 1941. His remit included the removal of the Amber Room, although he did not manage to achieve this. In March 1946, he was sent by SovNarKom, the Russian Council of People’s Commissars, to Königsberg in order to investigate the possible fate of the Amber Room.
He discovered the burnt-out remains of Königsberg Castle, including traces of the Amber Room. Three stone mosaics that had once decorated the Amber Room were nestled in the ruins of the castle, covered in ash: definitive proof that the Amber Room had been there and that at least some of it had been destroyed in the bombing of Königsberg.
8. The search for the Amber Room only went public in 1958
After over a decade of secretive searches and expeditions across East Prussia, the Russian newspaper Pravda finally went public, asking people to write in with any possible leads or information they might have on the room’s whereabouts.
Unsurprisingly, the paper got thousands of responses, from veterans who had been at Königsberg to those who lived in rural Prussia and had seen suspicious things in the dead of night. Kuchumov and his team continued to investigate leads in Russia, whilst the Stasi followed up leads in territory that was now part of East Germany.
9. Historians and journalists think it was probably destroyed in April 1945
Although it seems unlikely there will ever be a truly definitive answer to the mystery of the Amber Room, many historians and journalists believe that the room was probably destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945.
Some theories suggest that undisciplined, rowdy Soviet soldiers accidentally ended up destroying the Amber Room, arguably Russia’s greatest treasure, which had been boxed up in the Knights’ Hall of Königsberg Castle, ready for transportation.
Many more believe the Russian government knows exactly what happened to the room, but are deliberately withholding the information in order to keep the mystery alive.
10. The Amber Room was recreated at Tsarskoe Selo
In 1979, the Soviet government announced plans to recreate the Amber Room at Tsarskoe Selo: the scale and difficulty of the project was underestimated. A lack of craftsmen and financial difficulties hampered the project from its start, but the new Amber Room opened in 2003, on the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg’s founding.
The replica is a near-perfect recreation of the original Amber Room, using the exact 350 shades of amber from the original panels and ornately worked by craftsmen.