Exactly 300 years ago – on October 14th 1716 – King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia gave the Amber Room as a gift to the Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great. 75 years ago – on the very same day – the world-famous chamber was stolen by German troops, and taken back to former Prussia.
The whole room was dismantled by the German army from the Catherine Palace near St Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, in 1941, from where it was returned to Germany and soon after disappeared, never to be seen again.
The Amber Room, known as the Bernsteinzimmer in German, was a chamber built for the first King of Prussia. Its construction began in 1701 according to the design of court sculptor and architect Andreas Schlüter, whose most famous works also include the equestrian statue of Friedrich Wilhelm I that now stands outside Charlottenburg Palace.
The chamber is so called because the majority of the panels were made from amber, a precious naturally occurring substance, which is formed by the fossilisation of plant resin. Alongside the abundance of amber, the room was bordered with gold leaf, and inlaid with many mirrors.
However, it is its rich history that still fascinates many today, and compels treasure hunters, historians, and archivists alike to continue the search for this unique art piece.
Initially intended to be placed at Charlottenburg Palace, it was eventually installed in the Berlin City Palace, the building currently being restored in the centre of the capital city. Whilst on a state trip to Prussia from Russia in 1716, Tsar Peter the Great visited the newly completed room, and was said to be enchanted by it.
After his trip, as a symbol of the two states’ strong relationship, the Prussian ‘Soldier King’ gifted the room to the Tsar. The room was therefore disassembled and transported to Russia, where it was reassembled and enlarged at the Catherine Palace just south of St Petersburg, in modern day Pushkin.
Over 200 years later, during the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the infamous siege of Leningrad, the treasured room was taken back by the Nazi army. Theft of art and jewellery had become increasingly common as the Wehrmacht extended its fronts, but this was one of the most egregious examples of the war.
Packed up into crates, it was transported back to Königsberg, a former Prussian port city, which is now called Kaliningrad in the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania. The room was reassembled at Königsberg Castle until the advancing Soviet Red Army began to near the city.
Königsberg Castle as seen from the eastern side, 1900. Photo: Unknown – Original image / Wikimedia Commons
Once again, the room was disassembled, packed into crates, and hidden in the cellar. The city was heavily bombed and the castle was almost entirely razed to the ground. Since then, not one sighting has been reported.
A replica of the room was created in the Catherine Palace in 2003, but the whereabouts of the real Amber Room remain a true mystery.
Such a mystery has attracted hundreds of researchers and treasure hunters over the years to try to find this vanished wonder.
All sorts of different theories have been posited, but it seems that the room could either have been destroyed by the bombing, still be hidden in Kaliningrad, or have been taken elsewhere in the last months of the war.
Heinz-Peter Haustein, the mayor or Deutschneudorf in the Ore mountains near the Czech border, is convinced that the Amber Room is hidden somewhere in the labyrinth of old mines there. Documentary evidence was discovered in 1996 that high value goods were transported to the region in the final years of the war. According to Deutsche Welle, his first unsuccessful investigation in 2008 has not deterred him, and excavations continue in the region.
Another treasure hunter, Sergei Trifonov, claimed he knew where the chamber was located in 2010. Using an earth-penetrating radar, he detected a brick-lined room only 300 metres away from the Königsberg Castle, which was demolished in 1967. His theory is also yet to be proved.
As recently as this May, Erich Stenz claimed that the dismantled chamber is hidden beneath Schloss Friedland, a castle now in the Czech Republic. Stenz’s evidence hinges on a cook, who claimed to have seen SS trucks offload crates into the castle in 1945, according to Bild Online. The cook died in 2013, and left no further evidence.
Schloss Frýdlant in the Czech Republic (Friedland in German), where Stenz believes the Amber Room to be hidden. Photo: Rawac / Wikimedia Commons
These are not the only efforts, and many amateurs are carrying out searches across Germany.
But one factor that might put off prospective hunters is the fate suffered by many people linked to the treasure. Dr. Alfred Rohde, who was in charge of the Amber Room in Königsberg in the 1940s, died of typhus along with his wife in 1945, allegedly the day before they were due to be interrogated by the Soviets.
General Yuri Gusev, who was deputy head of Russia’s foreign intelligence unit, died in a car crash in 1992 whilst supposedly trying to give information to a journalist about the precious room. Georg Stein, another Amber Room hunter from Germany, was found murdered in a Bavarian forest in 1987.
Despite continuing efforts, 75 years to the day after its disappearance from Russia, the world is no closer to finding the real Amber Room.
By Alexander Johnstone