During WWII, Adolf Hitler’s Nazis stole some 600,000 pieces of art from across Europe. By the end of the war, billions of pounds worth of artwork had been scattered to the four winds, the Nazi looting had been on an industrial scale.
Whilst some pieces of stolen art have been returned to their rightful owners, many are still missing, including a priceless collection of stunning amber panels, known as the Amber Room - perhaps the most valuable items ever looted by the fascist regime.
The room was called the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ and one of Russia’s most treasured artefacts. After its looting, the room was returned to Germany and put on display, but it disappeared in the closing months of the war. Its fate is one of the greatest mysteries of WWII.
The Amber Room dated back to 1701 when German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter began work on it. At the time, Schlüter was the chief architect of the Prussian royal court and the use of amber for interior decoration was something completely new. Known as the Gold of the North, amber is fossilised tree resin and the Baltic region is said to house the largest known deposit of it.
Schlüter planned to adorn the walls of one of the rooms in the Charlottenburg Palace, in Berlin, with amber panels. The palace was home to Frederick I, the first King of Prussia, and his wife Queen Sophie Charlotte. To complete the task Schlüter enlisted the help of Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram.
To realise Schlüter’s ambitious dream, the pair had to create new ways of working with amber. It was heated and then dipped in an infusion of honey and linseed, before being worked onto panels of wood covered in gold or silver leaf and decorated with precious jewels.
In 1707, amber masters Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turau, from Danzig, continued the work until the deaths of Sophie Charlotte and Frederick. Eventually, the room was installed in Berlin City Palace where, in 1716, the visiting Russian tsar, Peter the Great, fell in love with it. To forge an alliance between the two states, Frederick’s son Frederick William I presented Peter with the room as a gift.
It was deconstructed and placed into large boxes and moved to the city Peter had just founded, St. Petersburg. In 1755, Peter’s daughter Empress Elizabeth had the room re-located to the Catherine Palace in modern-day Pushkin, just outside of St. Petersburg.
Several other Russian, German and Italian craftsmen worked on the room in the coming years, sculpting it around its new larger surroundings. When it was completed in 1770, the room covered more than 590 square feet and was adorned with over 6 tonnes of amber. The priceless piece of art dazzled and mesmerised all those who entered, its splendour more grandiose than Schlüter could ever have imagined. Estimates have placed its modern-day worth somewhere between £120-£240 million.
The room remained a Russian treasure throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and even survived the Revolution in 1917. However, its time on Russian soil came to an end in 1941, when Hitler’s forces closed in on St Petersburg (then called Leningrad) as part of Operation Barbarossa. Head art curator Anatoly Kuchumov was tasked with taking the precious Amber Room apart and prepping it for safe removal to the east.
Kuchumov soon discovered that the amber panels had become brittle over time and believed they would be badly damaged if removal were attempted. Instead, he ordered the room be covered by a thin layer of wallpaper in the hope the Nazi’s would pass by it. The ruse failed.
Hitler was well aware of the history of the Amber Room. In his eyes, the artwork was German made and should be returned to its homeland to be enjoyed by his countrymen. The Nazi’s knew exactly what they were looking for and within 36 hours they’d managed to do what Kuchumov had failed to – stripped the panels from the walls and packaged them into crates.
The crates were shipped to Königsberg in Germany on the Baltic coast (present-day Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave) and the room was re-erected in Königsberg castle. It remained on display to the German people there for the next two years. As the tide of war turned in Allied favour, the room was once again on the move as Hitler ordered looted possessions from Königsberg to be shipped out.
In 1944, the RAF heavily bombed Königsberg, including its historic quarters. Artillery fire reigned down on the city as the Soviets advanced towards it in 1945. These two events left the castle museum destroyed. Was the Amber Room evacuated in time or did it succumb to the bombings? As the Red Army marched into the German city, the Amber Room was nowhere to be seen - its final resting place still a mystery to this day.
The most obvious theory and one backed by Professor Alexander Brusov, the man the Soviets sent to recover the stolen artefacts in May 1945, is that they were indeed destroyed by the bombings and subsequent fires. In the cellar of the castle, Brusov purportedly discovered the burnt remains of three out of four Florentine mosaics that had been in the Amber Room.
Kuchumov, the man who’d failed to keep the room safe back in 1941, refused to accept Brusov’s conclusion. With the support of the KGB, he had Brusov denounced and started his own investigation, perhaps in an attempt to divert attention away from his own mistake.
In the years that followed, theory after theory arose. Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the Amber Room being packaged up and placed on-board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German transport ship, which was subsequently sunk in January 1945 by a Soviet submarine. Its wreckage, however, has been dived many times and nothing linked to the Amber Room has ever been discovered there.
The KGB conducted thorough investigations around Königsberg, leading many to believe the artwork lay hidden under the city in its labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. Again, nothing has ever been found there.
Other claims place the room in old salt mines on the Czech border, sunk in a lagoon in Lithuania and even stripped down and shipped off to the U.S. The most absurd states that Stalin had a fake Amber Room constructed, so the Nazi’s never even got their hands on the real thing.
Leads were followed left right and centre but nothing conclusive was ever found. The only pieces of the room ever recovered were a cabinet and the fourth Florentine mosaic - a German soldier had stolen the latter during the room’s removal in 1941 or 1945. It was in the possession of his son in 1997 when German authorities finally recovered it.
After extensive and thorough research, British investigative journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy concluded in their 2004 book The Amber Room, that Brusov was right and the room was destroyed at Königsberg. They theorised that the extensive investigations by the KGB were a ruse to cover up the initial Soviet mistake of destroying their own beloved Amber Room.
This argument is given further credence when it's considered that the Soviets ordered the destruction of Königsberg Castle in 1968, preventing any further research of the Amber Room’s last known location. The supposed theft of the room was also a useful Cold War propaganda tool for the Soviets, although Russian officials have denied this was the case.
Certainly, the Amber Room has proved a dangerous obsession for some. Former German soldier and amateur historian Georg Stein dedicated a large portion of his life to finding the Amber Room - he ended up being murdered in a Bavarian forest in 1987, disembowelled with a scalpel. General Yuri Gusev, deputy head of Russia's foreign intelligence unit, died in a mysterious car accident in 1992. He’d apparently been the source for a journalist who was investigating the whereabouts of the Amber Room.
In 1979, the Soviet government ordered a replica of the room. Twenty-four years later and at a cost of $11 million (£8.4 million), partly funded by the Germans, it was finally completed and installed in the Catherine Palace once again. The original has been replaced but not forgotten, many still believe the hunt for the world’s greatest lost treasure is far from over.