Construction of the Amber Room began in 1701. It was originally installed at Charlottenburg Palace, home of Friedrich I, the first King of Prussia. The room was designed by German sculptor Andreas Schlüter and constructed by the Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram. The room was given to Peter the Great as a gift in 1716 by Frederick William I in honor of a Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.
The Amber Room was shipped to Russia and is believed to have been installed in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. In 1755, Empress Elizabeth ordered the room to be moved to the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. Italian architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli redesigned the room to fit into its new, larger space using additional amber shipped from Berlin. The room covered 180 square feet and glowed with six tons of amber and other semi-precious stones. The amber panels were backed with gold leaf and the room was estimated to be worth $150 million today. Over time, the Amber Room was used as a private meditation chamber for Empress Elizabeth, a gathering room for Catherine the Great, and a trophy space for amber enthusiast Alexander II.
On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler initiated Operation Barbarossa, launching three million German soldiers into the Soviet Union. The invasion led to the looting of tens of thousands of art treasures, including the Amber Room. As the German forces approached Catherine Palace, instead of removing the Amber Room, for unknown reasons the curators instead attempted to hide the room behind cotton and thin layers of paper. The deception didn’t fool the German soldiers and they quickly discovered and dismantled the Amber Room and shipped it to Königsberg, Germany (present-day Kaliningrad). The room was installed in Königsberg’s castle museum on the Baltic Coast.
When the tide of war turned against the Germans, the Amber Room was removed from the castle museum. Except for a few traces, no one has seen it since. The museum director who looked after the Amber Room during the war assured the people of Germany that the room had survived the heavy allied bombings, but he gave no further clues as to its whereabouts before his death.
The obsession with solving this mystery has caught the attention of everyone from billionaire art lovers to the Stasi (state security service of East Germany) and the KGB (the Soviet committee for state security). So what happened to the Amber Room?
One theory is that it is still buried somewhere in inaccessible tunnels underneath the remnants of Königsberg’s castle.
Another theory is that the Amber Room was in fact destroyed during the Allied bombing raids or simply burned in the resulting fires, but skeptics say the whole city would have smelled the stench of burning amber.
Some historians believe the pieces of the Amber Room were put on a German ship which was later sunk by the Soviets, but multiple dives have yielded no amber.
A more recent tip led German investigators to an abandoned silver mine south of Berlin, and also to the shores of the Baltic to dredge a murky lagoon, but nothing was found in either location.
In 1979 the Soviets began reconstructing the Amber Room at Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. $11 million and twenty-five years later, the new room was dedicated during the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg in 2003.
Some who have visited the new Amber Room say it feels like stepping inside a life-sized jewelry box. There are many who believe that amber has healing powers, and some describe a feeling of light and heat coming from the walls. In fact, the emperors and empresses, as well as their guests who spent time in the Amber Room, all swore they felt an energy field.
Thousands of individual slivers of amber in twenty hues decorate the walls. A thin layer of gold foil hanging behind the translucent amber panels radiates a golden luminance. The room sparkles brilliantly in both daylight and candle light, just as it would have in the 18th century when filled with 500 candles.
In order to recreate this magic, craftsmen were trained in artistic techniques that hadn’t been practiced in centuries. Artisans spent more than ten years trying to learn the basic techniques used in the original construction, including more than 230 experiments on glues alone. All of the work was done based on old black and white photographs of the original Amber Room, including analyzing the different shades of amber.
The room’s centerpiece is four intricate Florentine mosaics that adorn the walls in extravagant amber frames. One of these is an original mosaic, stolen from the Amber Room crates by a soldier during the war and discovered and returned in 2002. The hardworking craftsmen were thrilled to discover their recreated panels were nearly a perfect match for the original.
State Museum-Preserve at Tsarskoye Selo: http://eng.tzar.ru/museums/palaces/c_atherine/amber_room
National Geographic Video, including breathtaking footage of both the original and new amber rooms: http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/specials/treasure-wars/amber-room-tw/
Mysteries of the Amber Room, Forbes Magazine, including much history and folklore about amber: http://www.forbes.com/forbes-life-magazine/2004/0329/048.html
Scott-Clark, Catherine and Levy, Adrian.The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 1994.