The Amber Room was an ornate chamber in the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (now Pushkin) near Saint Petersburg. The room, constructed in 1701, consisted of amber panels decorated with gold leaf, mirrors, and other artwork. Admirers described it as the “Eight Wonder of the World.”
Originally constructed and installed at the Berlin City Palace (Stadtschloss) in Prussia, the Amber Room ended up in the Catherine Palace after the Prussian King Frederick William (Wilhelm) I gifted it to Russia’s Peter the Great.
It went missing during the Second World War after the Nazis stole it from the Catherine Palace and reinstalled it at the Königsberg Castle.
Frederick I Prussia commissioned the Amber Room
The famous German baroque sculptor and chief architect to the Prussian court Andreas Schlüter designed the room. Gottfried Wolfram, a master craftsman to the Danish king Frederik IV, started construction in 1701, aided by two other expert craftsmen, Gottfried Turau and Ernst Schacht of Danzig (Gdańsk).
At the suggestion of his second wife, Sophia Charlotte, Frederick William I of Prussia originally planned to install the Amber Room at his Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg).
However, Charlotte died before they finished the work, and on completion, Frederick decided to install it at the Berlin City Palace (Stadtschloss).
Frederick I gifted the Amber Room to Peter the Great of Russia
Russia’s Peter the Great expressed great admiration for the room when he saw it at the Berlin City Palace during a visit to Germany.
In 1716, Frederick gifted it to Peter the Great. The gesture was partly to strengthen the alliance of Russia and Prussia against Charles XII of Sweden.
Following the expressed wish of his daughter Tsarina Elizabeth, Peter the Great installed the panels in one of the rooms in his Catherine Palace summer residence at Tsarskoye Selo (now Pushkin), near Saint Petersburg.
Russian and German experts disassembled the Amber Room in Berlin and reinstalled it at the Catherine Palace. After installation, the Russians worked further on the design for over a decade. They added new designs and features and renovated it multiple times.
The room had amber panels, gold leaf, precious stones, and mirrors. The design included statuettes, mosaics of marble, and onyx. Candlelight helped enhance the beautifying effects built into the design.
More than 6 tons of amber and 129 panels covered an area of about 590 square feet (Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times. June 26, 1997).
The Nazis looted the Amber Room
During the Second World War, invading German forces from the Army Group North participating in the Nazi regime’s Operation Barbarossa looted the room. The troops arrived at Tsarskoye Selo on June 22, 1941, occupied the historic Catherine Palace, and looted it.
The Russians had the opportunity to dismantle the panels but decided not to do so for fear that removal and reinstallation could damage them irreversibly. Instead, they removed other valuable items and furniture and tried to conceal the panels behind wallpaper.
But the Germans were aware of the existence of the famous room and quickly located it in the Catherine Palace. They brought experts to supervise the removal and transfer of the room to Königsberg (Kaliningrad).
The panels arrived at Königsberg, East Prussia, in October 1941. The Germans reassembled them at the Königsberg Castle (Königsberg Schloss) and arranged an exhibition in November 1941.
Allied bombing destroyed the Königsberg Castle
By 1944, the tide of the war had turned against the Germans. The Königsberg Castle came under heavy bombing by the Allies. A bombing raid in August 1944 sparked a fire incident at the castle. To save the panels, the Germans disassembled and packed them for storage in the castle’s cellars.
Hitler reportedly ordered the relocation of the panels and other looted treasures stored at the Königsberg Castle early in 1945. But according to some sources, local authorities did not immediately implement the order because the civilian administrator in charge unexpectedly abandoned his post.
Allied bombing and artillery bombardment by the advancing Soviet forces destroyed much of the castle. The Red Army eventually occupied Königsberg in the Spring of 1945.
What happened to the Amber Room?
The Amber Room panels went mysteriously missing during the bombing and shelling attacks on Königsberg Castle. The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the panels stored in the Königsberg Castle basement remain a mystery.
Nobody knows whether the bombing destroyed them or someone moved them elsewhere.
Reconstruction of the Amber Room
The Nazis left the Catherine Palace in ruins. In 1979, the Soviet authorities decided to reconstruct the palace and the Amber Room. They hired experts to do the work while the post-war German government offered assistance.
The Russian government eventually completed the work in 2003.
Past Attempts to Find
Where is the Amber Room?
The whereabouts of the original Amber Room remain unknown, but people have proposed multiple theories to explain the mystery.
The Nazis hid the Amber Room
Some theories about the location of the Amber Room derived inspiration from the knowledge that the Nazis hid looted treasures in multiple secret locations, often without proper documentation. The proposal that the Nazis hid the treasure toward the end of the war led to several claims about its location, but subsequent searches proved most of them wrong.
There were several claims that the Nazis hid the room in secret places across Germany. The claims sent enthusiastic treasure hunters on fruitless searches in places such as caves, bunkers, mines, wells, underwater and underground caves, secret cellars, and old Nazi strongholds fallen into ruins.
The Soviets sunk MV Wilhelm Gustloff carrying the Amber Room
One theory stems from locals who alleged they saw the Germans loading crates believed to contain the Amber Room panels onto the German transport ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff in early 1945.
As Soviet troops advanced westward in early 1945, the German authorities dispatched MV Wilhelm Gustloff to evacuate German civilian and military personnel from occupied Baltic states and Königsberg (Kaliningrad), the capital of East Prussia.
On January 30, 1945, the Soviet submarine S-13 encountered the Wilhelm Gustloff transporting refugees from Königsberg and sank it.
Researchers estimated that more than 9,000 people perished due to the sinking of the transport ship.
Operation Hannibal and the SS Karlsruhe theory
A theory claims that during Operation Hannibal (January-May 1945), the Nazis attempted to evacuate the room from the Königsberg on the German cargo ship SS Karlsruhe. But Russian aircraft sank it off the coast of Poland.
Operation Hannibal was a naval effort by the Germans to evacuate their military and civilian personnel from East Prussia and Pomerania as Red Army advanced in 1945. They successfully evacuated more than a million people.
The SS Karlsruhe participated in Operation Hannibal, but Soviet aircraft sank it on April 13, 1945.
The ship had departed from the port of Pillau (Baltiysk in Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia) with more than 1,000 people on board and arrived at Hel Peninsula, northern Poland, on April 12. It left Hel Peninsula with SS Santander and three mine sweepers on April 12 but fell behind the convoy because it was heavily laden and could not keep up.
Soviet aircraft spotted, attacked, and sank the ship on April 13, killing more than 900 people on board. Rescuers saved only about 150.
Polish divers found the wreck in the summer of 2020. After the divers reported that they found crates in the ship, some speculated it might have been transporting the panels. However, after the divers returned to investigate the wreck in 2021, they reported they did not find evidence of Amber Room there (Divernet. September 10, 2021).
Allied bombers destroyed the Amber Room at Königsberg Castle
Another popular theory claims it did not survive aerial bombing (by the Western allies) and Soviet shelling of the Königsberg Castle.
The Allies subjected the castle to heavy aerial bombardment in 1944. The bombing, spearheaded by the Royal Air Force, caused extensive damage. The Soviets launched the Königsberg offensive (Battle of Königsberg) in 1945, during which they heavily shelled the castle, sparking a fire that caused more damage.
Soviet agents tried to locate the panels after the war. They inspected the castle and announced that fire outbreaks sparked by repeated bombardment in April 1945 destroyed the room.
However, other sources reported that the Germans had dismantled the panels in 1944. They reportedly packed them in crates and stored them in the castle’s underground cellars, where they might have survived the Allied onslaught.
German soldiers stole it
Some proposed that private German soldiers who had access to the Königsberg Castle cellars where the Nazis stored the panels might have stolen them.
The claim appeared confirmed in 1997 when investigators found a stone mosaic (Feel and Touch Mosaic) and a lacquered wooden chest of drawers from the room. The treasures were in the hands of former German soldiers who may have helped pack them in crates for storage.
The Soviet authorities hid it
Information that the Germans stored the panels in the castle basement suggested to some that they might have survived the bombings.
It led to the proposal that the Soviet authorities recovered the Amber Room in whole or in part but did not admit it. According to a theory, the Soviets hid the Amber Room as a politically-motivated ploy to blame the Germans for the missing treasure.
The decision by the Soviet authorities to restrict access to the castle after the war and the decision in the late 1960s to demolish it promoted conspiracy theories that they wanted to conceal information about the fate of the panels.
A related theory claims that the Nazis never acquired the original Amber Room during Operation Barbarossa because the Soviets replaced it with a replica.
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The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace (1917). Pic credit: Public Doman via Wikimedia
Where to find
In the media
World Famous Treasures Lost and Found by Vikas Khatri, 2012.
https://www.gia.edu/gems-gemology/winter-2018-history-and-reconstruction-of-amber-room, “The History and Reconstruction of the Amber Room,” accessed on May 30, 2023.
https://archive.org/details/lastdaysofreichc00luca, “The Last Days of the Reich: The Collapse of Nazi Germany, May 1945,” accessed on May 30, 2023.
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/01/nazi-shipwreck-found-off-poland-may-solve-amber-room-mystery, “Nazi shipwreck found off Poland may solve Amber Room mystery,” accessed on May 30, 2023.
https://archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=19970626&slug=2546626, “Amber Room Remnants Found? — Discoveries Delight Russian Art Experts,” accessed on May 30, 2023.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-amber-room-160940121/, “A Brief History of the Amber Room,” accessed on May 30, 2023.
https://www.iflscience.com/the-mysterious-tale-of-the-missing-amber-room-67490, “The Mysterious Tale Of The Missing Amber Room,” accessed on May 30, 2023.
https://www.heritagedaily.com/2022/01/the-mystery-of-the-missing-amber-room/142423, “The mystery of the missing Amber Room,” accessed on May 30, 2023.
https://divernet.com/scuba-news/amber-room-still-missing-say-divers/, “Amber Room still missing, say divers,” accessed on May 30, 2023.