Art History Mystery #5: What Happened to the Amber Room?
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I have another exciting installment of the Art History Mystery series! Dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world”, The Amber Room was stolen by Nazi forces when they invaded Russia in 1941. And it hasn’t been seen since 1944! What could have happened to an entire room’s worth of amber panels?! To learn more, keep on reading!
Before we dive into a brief history of the Amber Room, I think that it’s important to discuss
what amber is! You might be familiar with it because the substance was made popular in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. As the movie explains, amber is fossilized tree resin/sap. It can be found all over the world, the nearest deposit to Russia is known as “Baltic Amber”. This substance is prized for its rich, caramel color that emits a warm glow.
Given its beauty, it was no surprise that amber was used to panels, along with additional golden decoration. The Amber Room was originally designed in 1701 by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and constructed by the Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram. Once it was finished, the panels were installed in Charlottenburg Palace, the seat
of the king of Prussia. When Peter the Great of Russia visited King Frederich William of Prussia, he admired the room. The Prussian ruler gifted it to the czar to cement their alliance against Sweden.
The room was dismantled, shipped to Russia, and then reinstalled in the Winter House. But, a few decades later, Catherine the Great had it moved to the Catherine Palace. After a few additions, the Amber Room was 180 square feet and included gold and semi-precious gem decorations. It truly earned the title, “The Eighth Wonder of the World”!
On June 22, 1941, three million German soldiers invaded the Soviet Union. Part of their mission was to loot art and treasure to glorify the Nazi cause. The Amber Room was particularly sought after because Hitler believed that because it was originally made for the King of Prussia, that it rightfully belonged in Germany.
Russian officials and curators knew that this was one of Hitler’s main prizes. So, they tried their best to hide it beneath some hastily added wall paper. But, because it was done so quickly, Nazi soldiers easily discovered the ruse and dissassembled the Amber Room.They fit the pieces into twenty seven crates, loaded them on a train, and shipped them to Königsberg, Germany (present-day Kaliningrad). Once there, it was unloaded and
reassembled in Königsberg Castle.
For the next two years, the Amber Room was studied and admired by the German public. However, once it became clear that the war was coming to an end, castle curators were advised to remove the paneling, repack it, and move it to a safer location. The city was bombed in August 1944 and the Amber Room was lost to history.
So, what happened to the Amber Room? The most common (and simplest) theory is that the crates holding the panels was destroyed by American bombs.
However, in a crazy twist, in 1997 German art detectives discovered one of the panels in an attorney’s office. He was representing the seller, who received it from his father. Unfortunately, the father was deceased, but the seller did inform the detectives that his father was a soldier during WWII. More panels have yet to be discovered but some people believe that they are buried somewhere or at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
Today, the mystery of the Amber Room lives on. But, visitors can enjoy a replica! Started in 1979 and finished in 2003, an $11 million new one was constructed in the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve outside of St. Petersburg. It was even dedicated jointly by the governments of Germany and Russia to celebrate the 300 year anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg.
Hopefully, someday soon, the real Amber Room will be found!
Amber Room Cover Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Baltic Amber: CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Frederick William I of Prussia, after 1733, Workshop of Antoine Pesne: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons