The hunt for the Amber Room
It could easily be the plot of an Indiana Jones movie – somewhere out there, in Poland according to the latest rumours, is buried an old Russian art treasure known as the Amber Room, stolen by the Nazis and valued in the region of $372 million. The search for it has been 70 years in the making, ever since it went missing at the end of the Second World War, but despite the various theories that have emerged, nobody has yet been able to find it.
“It’s the world’s most coveted treasure, everyone’s fascinated by it, just look at the media coverage it gets,” said Karl-Heinz Kleine, a pensioner from Wuppertal in Germany – yet another city where at one time the Amber Room was thought to be located.
The most recent report concerns the discovery of an old Nazi train buried in an abandoned tunnel beneath a mountain in Poland, believed to contain priceless works of art and gold, of which the Amber Room could be one. Digging it up will reveal if this is the case.
So what is it the experts are looking for? The Amber Room was an ornate chamber originally built for the Berlin City Palace in 1701, back when Berlin was the historic capital of Prussia. It was made of amber panels, featuring gold leaf, mirrors and precious stones, with candlelight giving it an ethereal glow. After a visit from Peter the Great in 1716, who was greatly impressed by it, the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm I, had it dismantled and sent to him as a gift. The Amber Room was then installed at the St Petersburg Winter Palace until 1745, after which time it was moved to the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo, just outside the city. Here it remained, with those who saw it affectionately calling the room the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’.
And then in 1941 the Germans invaded. As part of a looting spree they removed the room, transporting it to Koenigsberg – today known as Kaliningrad – before it disappeared. Some say that Adolf Hitler ordered the movement of all valuable artefacts out of Koenigsberg in 1945, to a location unknown, while cynics believe the Amber Room was destroyed as a result of bombing by the Allies. But the fact that it could be out there waiting to be discovered has made it one of the most desired pieces of art in the world.
The most recent report concerns the discovery of an old Nazi train buried in a tunnel beneath a mountain in Poland
Over the years, there have been many attempts to find it, with rediscovered documents or the hazy memories of war veterans offering up new clues. In 2006, a US team spent nearly $10.5 million exploring Lake Toplitz in Austria after a man reported that he had seen 27 crates – which the Amber Room is believed to have been divided into – being dropped into the water.
In early 2015, the German city of Wuppertal fell under the spotlight in response to a theory that Erich Koch, the Nazi leader of East Prussia who hailed from there, would have known the best hiding places.
The train in Poland was discovered last August, using ground-penetrating radar, and now waits to be excavated. The Polish government says the vehicle is 100m long and is covered in armour, suggesting a valuable cargo, although historians warn that it could also be booby-trapped with mines. Time will tell if the Amber Room is onboard.
For now, there is still an opportunity to experience what the attraction was like. In 1979, the Soviet government began to build an exact replica at the palace in Tsarskoye Selo, using original drawings and old photographs. It took 24 years, partly due to amber carving being a lost art form.
But is it just as good, or the walk-in equivalent of an imitation watch? We would only know if the original were to be found. For now it seems like a long wait for that day to come – if it arrives at all.