Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. – Kurt Vonnegut
The Amber Room or Yantarnaya Komnata (Russian: Янтарная комната, German: Bernsteinzimmer, Polish: Bursztynowa komnata) is a world-famous chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors, located in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg. Originally constructed in the 18th century in Prussia, the Amber Room disappeared during World War II and was recreated in 2003. Before the room was lost, it was considered an “Eighth Wonder of the World“.
Construction of the Amber Room first took place around 1701 in Prussia. The room was designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram. Schlüter and Wolfram worked on the room until 1707, when work was continued by amber masters Gottfried Turau and Ernst Schacht from Danzig. The amber cabinet remained in the Berlin City Palace until 1716 when it was given by the Prussian King Frederick William I to his then ally, TsarPeter the Great of the Russian Empire. In Russia, the room was expanded and after several renovations, it covered more than 55 square metres (590 sq ft) and contained over 6 tonnes (13,000 lb) of amber.
The Amber Room was looted during World War II by Army Group North of Nazi Germany and brought to Königsberg for reconstruction and display. Its current whereabouts remain a mystery. In 1979, efforts were undertaken to rebuild the Amber Room at Tsarskoye Selo. In 2003, after decades of work by Russian craftsmen and donations from Germany, the reconstructed Amber Room was inaugurated at the Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg.
The Amber Room was begun in 1701 with the purpose of being installed at Charlottenburg Palace, the residence of Frederick, the first King in Prussia, at the urging of his second wife, Sophie Charlotte. The concept and design of the room was drafted by Andreas Schlüter. It was fabricated by Gottfried Wolfram, master craftsman to the Danish court of King Frederick IV of Denmark, with help from the amber masters Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turau from Danzig.
Although originally intended for installation at Charlottenburg Palace, the complete panels were eventually installed at Berlin City Palace.The Amber Room did not, however, remain at Berlin City Palace for long. Peter the Great of Russia admired it during a visit and in 1716, King Frederick I’s son Frederick William I presented the room to Peter as a gift, which forged a Russo-Prussian alliance against Sweden.
The original Berlin design of the Amber Room was reworked in Russia in a joint effort by German and Russian craftsmen. It was Peter’s daughter Empress Elisabeth who decided the amber treasure should be installed at Catherine Palace, where the Russian Imperial family typically spent their summers. After several other 18th-century renovations, the room covered more than 55 square metres (590 sq ft) and contained over 6 tonnes (13,000 lb) of amber. The room took over ten years to construct.
Evacuation during World War II
Shortly after the beginning of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II, the curators responsible for removing the art treasures in Leningrad tried to disassemble and remove the Amber Room. However, over the years the amber had dried out and become brittle, making it impossible to move the room without crumbling the amber. The Amber Room was therefore hidden behind mundane wallpaper, in an attempt to keep German forces from seizing it. Predictably, the attempt to hide such a well-known piece of art failed.
German soldiers of Army Group North disassembled the Amber Room within 36 hours under the supervision of two experts. On 14 October 1941, the priceless room reached Königsberg in East Prussia, for storage and display in the town’s castle. On 13 November 1941, a Königsberg newspaper announced an exhibition of the Amber Room at Königsberg Castle.
Last days in Königsberg
Orders given by Hitler on 21 and 24 January 1945 ordered the movement of looted possessions from Königsberg. This allowed Albert Speer, Reichminister of Armaments, and his administration team to transport cultural goods of priority. However, before the Amber Room could be moved, Erich Koch, who was in charge of civil administration in Königsberg during the final months of the war, abandoned his post and fled from the city, leaving General Otto Lasch in command.
In August 1944, Königsberg was heavily fire bombed by the Royal Air Force. It suffered further extensive damage from artillery from the advancing Red Army before the final occupation on 9 April 1945.
In popular culture
- A fictional music box from the Amber Room is the macguffin plot device throughout the first two seasons of the USA television series White Collar.
- The Amber Room is the central plot device in Steve Berry‘s first novel The Amber Room (2003) and features in Faye Kellerman‘s novel Murder 101 (2014).
- The Amber Room was featured in an episode of Expedition Unknown. Host Josh Gates attempted to locate the remains of the room.
In 1979, the Soviet government decided to construct a replica of the Amber Room at Tsarskoye Selo, a process that was to last 24 years and require 40 Russian and German experts in amber craftsmanship. Using original drawings and old black-and-white photographs, every attempt was made to duplicate the original Amber Room. This included the 350 shades of amber in the original panels and fixtures that adorned the room. Another major problem was the lack of skilled workers, since amber carving was considered a nearly lost art form.
The financial difficulties that plagued the reconstruction project from the start were solved with the donation of $3.5 million from the German company E.ON. By 2003, the work of the Russian craftsmen was mostly completed. The new room was dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at the 300th anniversary of the city of Saint Petersburg.
The Amber Room is a priceless piece of art, with extraordinary architectural features such as gilding, carvings, 450 kg (990 lb) amber panels, gold leaf, gemstones, and mirrors, all highlighted with candle light. Additional architectural and design features include statues of angels and children. Because of its unique features and singular beauty, the original Amber Room was sometimes dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World“. Modern estimates of the room’s value range from $142 million (2007) to over $500 million (2016).
Disappearance and mysteries
After the war, the Amber Room was never seen in public again, though reports have occasionally surfaced stating that pieces of the Amber Room survived the war. Several eyewitnesses claimed to have spotted the famous room being loaded on board the Wilhelm Gustloff, which left Gdynia on 30 January 1945, and was then promptly torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet submarine.
In 1997, an Italian stone mosaic that was part of a set of four stones which had decorated the Amber Room was found in Germany, in the possession of the family of a soldier who claimed to have helped pack up the amber chamber. The mosaic came into the hands of the Russian authorities and was used in the reconstruction effort.
In 1998, two separate teams, one German and one Lithuanian, announced they had located the Amber Room. The German team pointed to a silver mine while the Lithuanian team believed the amber treasure was buried in a lagoon; neither of the two suggestions turned out to hold the Amber Room.
In 2004, a lengthy investigation by British investigative journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy concluded that the Amber Room was most likely destroyed when Königsberg Castle was heavily damaged, first during the bombing of Königsberg by the Royal Air Force in 1944, when the castle completely burned down, and later by the Soviet shelling of the remaining walls. Documents from the Russian National Archives revealed this as the assessment of a Soviet report, written by Alexander Brusov, head of the Soviet team charged with locating the Amber Room following the war. The report stated:
|“||Summarizing all the facts, we can say that the Amber Room was destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945.||”|
These dates correspond with the end of the Battle of Konigsberg, which finished on 9 April with the surrender of the German garrison. A few years later, Brusov publicly voiced a contrary opinion; this is believed to have been done due to pressure from Soviet authorities, who did not want to be seen as responsible for the loss of the Amber Room.
Among other information retrieved from the archives was the revelation that the remaining Italian stone mosaics were found in the burned debris of the castle. Scott-Clark and Levy concluded in their report that the reason the Soviets conducted extensive searches for the Amber Room, even though their own experts had concluded that it was destroyed, was because they wanted to know if any of their own soldiers had been responsible for the destruction. Scott-Clark and Levy also assessed that others in the Soviet government found the theft of the Amber Room a useful Cold War propaganda tool. Russian government officials have since denied these conclusions. Adelaida Yolkina, senior researcher at the Pavlovsk Palace, reportedly stated: “It is impossible to see the Red Army being so careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed”.
After the report was made public, Leonid Arinshtein, who was a Lieutenant in the Red Army in charge of a rifle platoon during the Battle of Konigsberg, said: “I probably was one of the last people who saw the Amber Room”. At the same time, he explained that the whole city was burning due to artillery bombardments, but also denied allegations that the Red Army burned the city on purpose by saying: “What soldiers would burn the city where they will have to stay?”
A variation of this theory by some present-day residents of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), is that at least parts of the room were found in the Königsberg Castle cellars after World War II by the Red Army. The Amber Room was allegedly still in good condition; this was not admitted at the time so the blame could fall upon the Nazis. To preserve this story, access to the ruins of the castle, which was allowed after World War II, was suddenly restricted to all, including historical and archaeological surveys, but the room is said to be in a storehouse near Konigsburg castle.
Then in 1968, despite academic protests worldwide, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the destruction of Königsberg Castle, thus making any onsite research of the last known resting place of the Amber Room all but impossible. In more recent years, the search for the Amber Room has continued in different locations including near Wuppertal, Germany.