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It was once considered the eighth wonder of the world: a marvelous, paneled chamber of amber mosaics and carvings that adorned Catherine the Great's Palace for over 300 years.
The Amber room was a gift from King Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia to the Czar Peter the Great, given to the Russian in 1717. Unable to find the craftsmen needed to properly install such an intricate piece, the panels remained packed away until Peter's daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, found use for them in her own palace, named for her mother, Catherine. During its time, many Tsars and Tsarinas rose to power, culminating with the Russian dynasty itself falling to the forces of the Communist revolt. And yet, the Amber Room remained one of Russia's, and the world's, greatest treasures.
So how come it no longer exists? Or does it?
Well, for that we have to thank Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In addition to invading most of Europe, Hitler was also a serious art buff. One of his side projects was the envisioning of the Führermuseum (which he named after himself naturally) which he conceived as the world's largest museum. Hitler hoped to consolidate all of history's greatest masterpieces and artifacts, forcibly taken from their home countries, and install them in this museum.
The Amber Room, therefore, was a prime target.
In September of 1941, the Nazis initiated Operation Barbarossa. Not merely an audacious campaign to take Russia, Barbarossa would serve as one of the first stops on the Nazi version of the Antiques Roadshow. About 20 or so miles away from the defensive perimeter put up by the Russians, Germany’s Army Group North charged into Catherine Palace and discovered the Amber Room clumsily hidden behind a slapdash wallpaper job—a futile, last ditch effort on part of the Russian to hide the work. Under the watchful eye of Hitler's favorite art thief, the Germans dismantled the panels of the room, including the amber-laden furniture. Within just little over a day, the Amber Room was packed and shipped back to the German stronghold of Königsberg Castle and put on display as a lavish war trophy.
It didn't last long. In 1944, the allied forces bombed Königsberg Castle before the Nazis could transport the room. Supposedly, it was lost during the destruction, but many people, art historians and conspiracy theorists alike, think otherwise.
Some believe the Germans did, in fact, manage to smuggle the crates of amber out of Königsberg Castle, before its collapse. Since the town of Königsberg was surrounded by sea on all sides, the Germans would have had to take to the ocean in order to escape the allied land invasion. Some accounts say that the ship carrying the amber room was sunk, by torpedo or bomb, by the allies.
Others say that it was survived and was smuggled out by train. There is a popularly held belief that somewhere buried in the forests of Poland lies a train stocked with plundered artifacts, gold, and the panels of the Amber Room. To this day, no evidence of the train has been uncovered, despite best efforts. A variation on this tale has the Germans hiding the artwork in a sealed-off mine. There is evidence to support this later theory, as many works of art were recovered by the allies in salt mines located in the dense woodland of Germany.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought on even more speculation concerning the Amber Room. Unsealed files even reported witnesses who claimed that the Königsberg Castle wasn't destroyed by the allies, as widely believed, but by an overzealous Red Army who had burned down their own nation's beloved treasure. In embarrassment, this accident was swept under the rug. The first President of post-Russia, Boris Yeltsin, even claimed that the Germans still knew the precise whereabouts of the room, which he alleged was hidden in East Germany, but this didn't reveal anything other than that Yeltsin was a little bit over dramatic! Still, there was reason for him to lob such a grievous accusation: at the time, Germany still retained almost $70 billion in Russian artworks, stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
Then, in 1997, a startling discovery gave merit to the Russian President’s wild claims. In Potsdam, Germany, art theft detectives arrested a prominent lawyer trying to pawn off an unusual mosaic for a fetching sum of $2.5 million dollars. Art experts proclaimed that the panel was none other than one of the four Florentine mosaics that hung on the walls of the Amber Room. Shortly after this, an art restoration specialist came forward and told authorities that he had repaired one of the iconic lacquered chests of the Amber Room back in the 1970s. Both the layer and the restorer claimed that they had no idea either work was from the Amber Room collection. Art historians believe that both pieces were stolen by Nazi soldiers, hoping to skim the top off Hitler’s fortunes during the transportation of the Room from Russia to Germany. This quashed many theorists who presumed the pieces were telltale signs that the Amber Room still existed somewhere in a dismantled, but otherwise complete form.
In 2012, a tax fraud investigation led German police to the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, an elderly, cantankerous art historian whose father was one of Hitler's art thieves. There, investigators found works by Renoir, Degas, Matisse, and some other odd 1,406 pieces of art worth an estimated one billion Euros. The authorities suspected that Gurlitt might have other properties, and might even know the whereabouts of the Amber Room (if it still existed) but Gurlitt died in 2014, before he could be question in full.
The final, and most prominent rumor, is that the Amber Room is hidden in a walled off bunker in Wegorzewo, Poland. This Polish town holds a unique remnant of Nazi occupation—a bunker on the edge of the woods that has been converted in the Mamerki Museum.
In the 1950s, Polish forces captured a former Nazi watchman of the Mamerki barracks, and the ensuing interrogation revealed a curious anecdote. On a cold night in 1944, the guard witnessed a heavily armed convoy unloading a curiously large pallet of crates into the bunker.
For many years, the Mamerki watchman's story was interpreted as just that, a story. Then, in 2016, directors of the Mamerki Museum decided to employ a state-of-the art geothermic radar. They wanted to chart the land around the bunker, hoping to uncover any artifacts that may be hiding among the soil. What they found instead was a room: six and a half feet long by ten feet wide. The hidden chamber could easily hide a substantial amount of cargo--a whole amber room size, if you will. The directors of the Mamerki were stunned. There were no records concerning this room, and the museum had been untouched since the Germans fled the area. That said, excavation revealed nothing of interest behind the wall.
Yet the same tools used by the Mamerki may be what turns up the actual whereabouts of the Amber Room, which as of October 2017, are now believed to be hidden a cave system in the hills of Dresden, Germany. A trio of amateur treasure hunters, including a georadar technician, believe their radar has turned up a bunker hidden within the caves, which were used by the Nazis during the war. The location of this chamber? Right below a rail line that carried in cargo from Königsberg. Excavations are scheduled to start some time in 2018.
In 2003, a meticulous replica, forty years in the making, was installed in a renovated Catherine Palace in Russia. The existence of the original Amber Room, however, remains a beguiling mystery.
You can hear more about this, and other treasures, at Relic: The Lost Treasure Podcast. @LostTreasurePod