The Mystery of the Nazis and the Vanishing ‘Amber Room’

It may be worth $500 million, but the whereabouts of the King of Prussia’s ‘Amber Room,’ bedecked in floor-to-ceiling amber and gold, have remained a mystery since Nazis looted it.

VPC Photo Alamy

This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed, lost, or never completed.

It’s like Mayan ruins lost to time or the fabled city of Atlantis. There once existed a golden room bedecked in floor-to-ceiling amber, gold, and semiprecious stones.

It positively glowed. Two different kings called it their own, and it graced multiple palaces, ultimately becoming the prized treasure of the Russians.

And then the Nazis invaded, and the 180-square-foot Amber Room—today worth anywhere from $140 million to $500 million—vanished without a trace.

Sure, the Nazis have become notorious for the extent of their looting as they bulldozed their way across Europe, taking the art and sculptures that made up the collections of their Jewish victims and the countries they conquered. But disappearing an entire bejeweled room that has often been called the eighth wonder of the world?

It all began over 300 years ago when the newly minted King of Prussia, Frederick I, commissioned a new work of art for his Charlottenberg Palace.

He called on sculptor Andreas Schlüter to design a room made almost entirely out of amber.

The orange, yellow, and red hues of amber were set into gold leaf to make panels of intricate mosaics that were finished off with other semiprecious stones. The mosaics took eight years to complete and were finally installed in 1709.

But they didn’t stay in Prussia very long. In 1716, the second King of Prussia, Frederick William I, who allegedly prized his military prowess over the artistic endeavors honored by his father, gifted the room to Peter the Great of Russia as a symbol of peace between the two countries…and a sign of their alliance against Sweden.

The Russians treasured their gift. The amber mosaics were installed in the Winter House in St. Petersberg until 1755, when Czarina Elizabeth moved the panels to the Catherine Palace.

There, it was a favorite spot of the royal family, who loved to entertain their noble guests surrounded by the warmth of the gleaming walls.

Because the Amber Room occupied a bigger space in the Catherine Palace than in its previous homes, the Russians brought in architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli and a new trove of amber to expand their artistic masterpiece. In the end, the Amber Room clocked in at 180 square feet and over six tons of stones.

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“The amber room is one of the great treasures of Russia—culture, Russian history, and Russian heritage,” said Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, a cultural historian at Georgetown University, in a video on the National Geographic.

And there it sat in the Catherine Palace for over 80 years, dazzling all who entered, until WWII shook the world.

In 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. As with their other conquests, they immediately set their sights on pillaging the nation’s treasures to add to their own artistic arsenal. In particular, the Nazis wanted the Amber Room.

The Soviets didn’t give up easily—even when it came to their art. They tried to protect the Amber Room first by taking it apart and moving it. When that failed (the amber started crumbling and it was deemed too dangerous to continue), they tried to hide it in plain sight by wallpapering over the ornate walls.

But the Nazis weren’t fooled. They quickly found what they were looking for, disassembled it, packed it into 27 crates, and shipped it off to the Fatherland.

The boxes ended up in Königsberg, where the room was reassembled one last time and put on display in the Königsberg castle museum under the eye of the director—and amber expert—Alfred Rohde.

This was the Amber Room’s last known location; the trail of the lost masterpiece goes dark from here. There are several theories about what may have happened to the precious mosaic walls. Some think they were destroyed when Allied bombers targeted the city in 1944.

Others say Rohde was ordered to pack them up once more when it became clear the war wouldn’t go on much longer.

Some think he put them on a train that has yet to be found, while others think they sailed away on a ship that sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

As with most art mysteries—including those involving the countless works pillaged by the Nazis that have never been found—dedicated treasure hunters and hobbyists have continued the search for the missing room.

The first sign of an answer came in 1997 when a mosaic from the Amber Room popped up at an auction.

While the panel didn’t lead to the rest of the treasure—it is believed that a Nazi soldier stole the panel from the train ferrying the already stolen goods to Germany—several other leads have emerged over the past decade.

The most recent claim points to a bunker outside of Mamerki, Poland, which once served as Nazi military headquarters and is not far from Königsberg. Tests are being done on the land to try to determine its contents. But even if it does turn out to hold the missing prize, many experts aren’t optimistic about the state of the masterpiece.

''If the Amber Room lies hidden somewhere, it is most probably in some damp mine, which means it is almost certainly in a state of ruin. Even before it was stolen, it was in poor shape, in need of restoration, and the amber pieces were falling out,’’ Dr Alexander Shedrinksy, an amber expert and adjunct professor at New York University, told The New York Times in 2000.

The Russians, for their part, never forgot their missing national treasure. In 1979, the Soviet government began a project to reconstruct the Amber Room based on black-and-white photos.

The project took 24 years to complete, and required artisans to resurrect the old and largely forgotten art of amber craftsmanship. It also was ultimately finished thanks in part to a generous German donation.

But while a replica of the glowing room is now back in its rightful home, the search for the original will continue to grip the imaginations of historians and treasure hunters until the mystery of the missing Amber Room has been solved once and for all.