The Amber Room, or, How Russia and Germany Lost the Eighth Wonder of the World

One time, Germany and Russia lost an entire room. An extremely valuable, artistic masterpiece, eighth wonder of the world of a room. It’s quite the epic tale, full of alliances against Sweden, art conservators making poor life choices, and Nazis.

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The reconstructed Amber Room in the Catherine Palace. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

It begins in 1701 when Friedrich I, the first King of Prussia, commissioned a series of amber panels from an international team of master craftsmen. In 1711, Friedrich installed the finished panels in Berlin City Palace.

Friedrich’s son, Friedrich Wilhelm I, assumed the Prussian throne upon his father’s death in 1713. Not long after, Peter the Great paid a visit to the Prussian monarch, and admired the amber panels during his stay. In 1716, Friedrich presented his father’s panels to the Czar in order cement an alliance against Sweden (all this creation and exchange of amber-driven art was happening against the backdrop of Great Northern War, 1700-1721).

The amber panels arrived in Russian in 18 large boxes. After their installation in the Winter House in St. Petersburg, the panels underwent a renovation and expansion which concluded in 1755. Shortly thereafter, Czarina Elizabeth ordered the Amber Room moved to a larger space in the Catherine Palace. This move required that additional amber be shipped from Berlin, and by the time its transfer was complete, the Amber Room covered about 180 square feet, containing six tons of amber, gold leaf, and other semi-precious stones.

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Photograph of the original Amber Room. Source and date unknown.

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Photograph of the original Amber Room, taken in 1932. Image courtesy of the Novosti Press.

The Amber Room led a fairly quiet domestic existence after that. Czarina Elizabeth used it as a private meditation chamber, Catherine the Great used it as a gathering space, and Alexander II, an amber connoisseur, used it as a trophy space. The Soviets maintained it after the Revolution, though by the 1940s the amber had become dry and brittle.

Which posed quite a problem to the curators tasked with its removal.

On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa launched some three million German soldiers into the Soviet Union. Knowing the Nazi proclivity towards art theft, the curators responsible for the removal and protection of Leningrad’s treasures understood that they had to act fast. But as they removed the panels of the Amber Room, the amber began to crumble.

Caught between fear of the approaching Nazis, fear of destroying the Amber Room, and fear of the Nazis taking the room, the curators decided that the best solution was to cover their world famous charge in mundane wallpaper.

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The Catherine Palace post-Amber Room theft. Image date and source unknown, taken from the Daily Mail.

The Nazi Art Theft Division was, shockingly, not fooled, and disassembled the Amber Room in less than two days. On October 14, 1941, they packed it into 27 crates, and shipped it to Konigsberg, Germany (present-day Kaliningrad) for storage and display in the city’s castle museum. There it remained until January 1945, when Hitler order the removal of all looted objects from Konigsberg.

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The Amber Room in Konigsberg, Germany in 1942. Image courtesy of Alamy.com.

There are a lot of stories about what happened next. Some claim that Hitler’s orders were followed, and that the Amber Room was packed into crates for transport. A group of eyewitnesses claims to have seen the crates at a railway station. Others hold that the crates were loaded aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship sunk by a Soviet submarine. Others still insist that the crates were buried in a secret location long since forgotten. In 1997, a group of German detectives received a tip that someone was trying to sell a piece of the Amber Room. The seller was the son of a deceased German soldier whom had helped pack up the room; the fragment is now in the hands of the Russian government.

It is most likely that the Amber Room was destroyed during the April, 1945 Battle of Konigsberg. The city’s German administrators fled as Soviet forces advanced on the city, and the ensuing Battle of Konigsberg, which lasted from April 6-April 9, 1945, left 80% of the city in ruins.

In June, 1945, Alexander Brusov, the chief of the first formal Soviet mission to find the Amber Room, wrote, “Summarizing all the facts, we can say that the Amber Room was destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945.” Brusov later retracted this statement, most likely under pressure from other Soviet officials wishing to obscure the possibility that Soviet soldiers may have been responsible for the room’s destruction. Indeed the Soviet government continued to search for the Room despite their own experts’ conclusions, most likely for the very same reason.

Interestingly, the Soviet government restricted access to the remains of the Konigsberg Castle after the war, even to archaeological and historical surveys. In 1968, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the demolition of Konigsberg Castle, making any onsite research of the last known home of the Amber Room all but impossible, and destroying any pieces of the room which may have survived.

In 2004, British investigative journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy set out to find the Amber Room, or at least, to determine its fate once and for all. The two authors concluded that the Amber Room was most likely destroyed during or in the aftermath of the Battle of Konigsberg.

Since the book’s release, Russian officials have rather defensively denied its conclusions. Adelaida Yolkina, a senior researcher at the Pavlovsk Museum Estate stated that “It is impossible to see the Red Army being so careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed.” Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, stated that “Most importantly, the destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is the fault of the people who started the war.”

Regardless, somewhere between the Wallpaper Incident, the Nazi belief that the the Amber Room was made by and for Germans, the likely non-removal of the room before the Battle of Konigsberg, and the 1968 Soviet destruction of the last known home of the Amber Room, the room disappeared, and was never seen in public after 1945. In the end, I guess Sweden got the last laugh, as it remained passive aggressively neutral throughout World War II. That’ll teach Prussia and Russia to exchange anti-Swedish alliance art.

In 1979 the Soviet government decided that it was high time to resurrect the almost lost art of amber carving and construct a new Amber Room. It took 24 years, millions of dollars (including a sizable German donation), and consultations of drawings and black and white photographs of the original Amber Room. In 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder presented the new Amber Room.

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The Reconstructed Amber Room. Image courtesy of Wikipedia user jeanyfan.

The new Amber Room is housed in the Catherine Palace, and is open to the public for viewing.

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