Whilst most people associate amber with the substance that perfectly preserved dinosaur DNA for millions of years in the sci-fi anthology Jurassic Park, the stone has fascinated treasure hunters and conspiracy theorists because of the jewel-adorned “Amber Room”, which remains a coveted work of art that was looted by the Nazis during the war and whose whereabouts remain a mystery to this day.
Often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the room was designed by German Baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and constructed in 1701 by the Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram. Luminous and fragile, amber has long been revered and the fossilised resin was a sought-after substance for the creation of royal and religious objects in Eastern Europe. A series of panels crafted from six tonnes of amber mounted on gold-leaf walls and embellished with mosaics and mirrors, the room was an ode to the beauty of the material and designed to please Frederick I, King of Prussia. A 55 square-foot masterpiece with an estimated monetary value of over 240 million euros, the room was an ornate paragon with architectural features such as intricate carvings, gold leaves, gemstones, statues of angels and children, and mirrors that illuminated the room with candlelight - a fitting homage to the opulence and the might of the Prussian empire. Originally installed at Charlottenburg, the room was gifted to the Russian Empire to cement the Russo-Prussian Alliance against Sweden, and was thus eventually moved to St.
Petersburg. The room came to hold versatile purposes for Russian royalty, with it being used as a private meditation chamber for Tsarina Elizabeth, a parlour for Catherine the Great, and even a trophy space for amber connoisseur Alexander II.
The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union led to the looting of thousands of illustrious Russian treasures, including the Amber Room, which was dismantled and taken back to Germany where it remains on display in Königsberg (present-day Kaliningrad in Russia). Heavy bombing in the city and declassified Russian documents led historians to believe the room had been destroyed in the damage inflicted on Königsberg castle, with hopes of material as brittle as amber being impossible to withstand heavy fire, being low. Despite detailed searches by the Soviets in hundreds of locations around the city and the ruins of the town’s castle yielding no sign of the Amber Room, conspiracy theories about the room’s possible survival and location have not ceased to spread. Although some thought the room might have been destroyed by fire, no traces of burning amber were found and it was assumed that the room could have survived, after all, hidden in the castle's basement or taken somewhere else.
It seems hard to believe that crates of amber would go missing and many have tried to solve the mystery. Some believe it was loaded onboard a ship in 1945, which was then torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet submarine at the bottom of the Baltic Sea; others believe that the Germans stole a fake room. Hopes that the room might still exist in all its glory soared in 1997 when German art detectives discovered parts of the fourth Florentine mosaic panel in Bremen with the son of a German soldier.
The most likely explanation is that it was indeed destroyed at Königsberg, or parts may remain hidden beneath the castle. However, in 1968 the Soviet Union ordered the destruction of Königsberg Castle, thus making any further onsite investigation of the last known resting place of the Amber Room impossible. Nonetheless, it is perhaps the mysterious deaths surrounding the investigation of the room that gives it a “cursed” reputation, with the deaths of several notable people, such as General Gusev, a Russian intelligence officer who died in a car crash after he talked to a journalist about the Amber Room as well as Amber Room hunter and former German soldier Georg Stein, who was murdered in a Bavarian forest, in 1987.
In 1979, the Soviet government commissioned the reconstruction of the Amber Room, guided by a single box of relics from the room, and 86 black-and-white photos of the space taken just before World War Two. The process would take craftsmen 24 years to complete, with the new Amber Room being on display at Catherine Palace in St Petersburg. With walls glowing orange and gold, this new Amber Room revives the ancient
practice of using this luminescent fossilised resin in artwork to life once more.
Despite the lack of real evidence and the abundance of possible theories, the Amber Room remains one of the many mysteries of the Second World War which lures and thrills treasure hunters and adventure seekers alike. The beguiling mystery and the magnificent vision invoked by the very thought of the room inspire both appreciation for the beauty of art and yet, regret for its unfortunate loss like millions of other masterpieces in times of war.