The True Fate of the Amber Room
Occasionally on Skeptoid we examine popular myths about stupendous treasures and all the efforts to find them, and in most of these cases, the truth is that the treasure probably (or certainly) never existed. But of all of these, one treasure most assuredly did exist: the fabulous Amber Room, a room in which the very walls themselves were the treasure, and which stood in a Russian palace for hundreds of years. A peerless artwork worth countless millions of dollars, the Amber Room disappeared in World War II, and treasure hunters have been looking for it ever since. Today we're going to learn its actual fate — but be forewarned: the answer is not nearly so straightforward as you might have heard.
The room was covered in ornate gilded panels that glowed bright with gold and amber — bright gems of fossilized tree sap with a rich yellow-red color. The amber was backed with gold leaf and mirrors and cut and fit into beautiful patterns — it was a dazzle to look at. By any reasonable estimate, the Amber Room was worth hundreds of millions of dollars in today's money, right up there with history's most valuable works of art. Any surviving single panel, if found, would certainly match an undiscovered Da Vinci or Picasso masterpiece.
The historical origins of the Amber Room are well known and are not controversial. Its construction began in 1701 for Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin (then part of Prussia), but when the ten-year project was completed, it was installed instead in the nearby Berlin City Palace. When Peter the Great visited in 1716, he admired it so much that King Frederick William I gifted it to him, as part of cementing their alliance. Peter had it installed at Catherine Palace south of St. Petersburg, where it was expanded, eventually including over six tons of amber. It is not hyperbole to say that it was the most beautiful and breathtaking room ever built.
And there the Amber Room sat for more than two centuries, the pride of the Russian Empire and then of the Soviet Union. But trouble was afoot. In 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviets evacuated all the art treasures they could — millions of artifacts from the Hermitage and various palaces — but the Amber Room itself proved to be too brittle to be safely disassembled. Anatoly Kuchumov, a young Russian curator, wrote that everything they tried to remove broke. The best they could do was to hastily build false walls over the amber panels to hide them. But when the Nazis arrived they knew exactly what they were looking for and where to find it. They pried it in pieces from the walls and packed it into crates, and sent it to Königsberg (then part of Nazi Germany, and today Kaliningrad in Russia). For the Germans, this was a homecoming of what they saw as their greatest work of art. It was placed into the charge of Alfred Rohde of the Königsberg Castle Museum, who had it painstakingly reconstructed and eventually made available for public display.
But the end of the Amber Room was nigh. Königsberg was safe for most of the war, but eventually it fell to British bombing attacks and to the artillery of the advancing Red Army. Königsberg Castle was razed. What had happened to the Amber Room?
Theories have raged ever since, as it's known that the Nazi cultural property appropriation task force Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg was in charge of preserving the room. Many believe it was packed into crates and moved before the Red Army got to Königsberg. Some believe it was put on a ship which sank; some believe it was moved to storage in mine shafts; some believe it still hides in an unknown warehouse. Even the History Channel has gotten into the game, with their show Expedition Unknown searching creepy undergrounds as a promotion of some of the crazier claims. Most likely, treasure hunters throughout Europe will continue to pursue the Amber Room... and as it turns out, they've been given a compelling reason to do so.
This reason came to light in 2004, when investigative journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy published their magnum opus book, The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure. For years they'd interviewed every living person who had played any significant role in the Amber Room's final years who would talk to them, including former intelligence officers, German and Russian government officials, former military, and curators. What they found was all too expected: a contradictory mess of cold war propaganda, stonewalls, cover stories, and lack of cooperation. One clear image emerged. Scott-Clark and Levy wrote:
The reason for this? The Soviets knew the Amber Room had been destroyed by their own troops in their own invasion of Königsberg, and yet its specter remains an important pawn in the postwar game of reparations. To quote Scott-Clark and Levy:
But the need to cover up the destruction was even more personal for Kuchumov himself. After the war's end he was among the academics who picked through the ruins of Königsberg and found ample proof that it burned then and there. Perhaps Scott-Clark and Levy's most important discovery was Kuchumov's archives, who had since died but left boxes and boxes of documentation, which tell a poignant story of inner conflict, a game of discovery and suppression.
Kuchumov had already seen some of his former museum colleagues sent to gulags for failing to protect treasures from the Nazis, and Kuchumov's own failing was by far the greatest of them all — his farcical false wall to conceal the room in 1941. Thus, the rest of Kuchumov's career, which he spent in charge of a special commission to locate the Amber Room, was a lie. From 1967 to 1984 he headed the Kaliningrad Geological Archaeological Expedition (KGA), codenamed the "Choral Society", to not find the Amber Room, but to keep alive hope that it was still out there somewhere to be found, stolen by the Germans. He even wrote a 1989 book The Amber Room that remains the most popular source feeding the alternative histories, in which he said:
Thus were the urban legends kept alive, the hopes of amateur treasure hunters everywhere kept high, and Kuchumov's personal demons kept at bay.
In 1945, the Nazis — knowing their end was near — did indeed disassemble the Amber Room and pack it into crates, ready to evacuate it to Saxony. But it was too late, and the crates remained in a room of the castle called The Knights' Hall — in the small part of the castle that had survived the bombing and artillery — even as the Nazis surrendered. Soon, celebrating Russian soldiers danced as they torched what was left of Königsberg Castle and it burned to the ground. Amber burns like firewood.
The manager of a restaurant inside the castle, Paul Feyerabend, was extensively debriefed by Soviet officers and confirmed the crates' contents and location. Kuchumov had already read of Feyerabend's testimony and also the report of Professor Alexander Brusov, who was sent into the wreckage of the Knights' Hall and recovered copper hinges and other artifacts identified as having been part of the Amber Room. Kuchumov even interviewed Feyerabend himself, and also recovered three of four Florentine stone mosaics — the only parts of the Amber Room that hadn't been flammable — from the Knights' Hall. Charred wreckage in hand, the proof was absolute; and Brusov filed a report stating the fact.
But 33 years later in 1978, a German man, Hans Achterman, was watching a television documentary about the Amber Room when up popped a picture of the fourth stone mosaic — which he recognized, because it was sitting in his parents' attic. His father had been among the Wehrmacht soldiers who dismantled the Amber Room in Catherine Palace in 1941, and had stolen it. Then in 2000, after his father had passed away, Achterman thought he might be able to make some money off the mosaic and contacted Professor Wolfgang Eichwede, who mediated the return of war artifacts between Germany and Russia. The mosaic was indeed legit; it was the one missing when Kuchumov had found the other three in the debris at Königsberg in 1946, and photos confirm this one was missing while the room had been on display there.
The discovery of the mosaic ignited a new firestorm of conspiracy theories and wild claims that the room still existed packed away somewhere. A few other pieces, including a chest of drawers that had been part of the original room, came to light during this time. Together these relics constitute further fuel for the fire that guarantee the treasure hunters will always have suitable motivation.
But let us close with the single most persuasive piece of evidence that the Russian government knows the original Amber Room to have been destroyed. It's found in the Catherine Palace south of St. Petersburg, where the original Amber Room spent more than two centuries. The piece of evidence is today's reconstructed Amber Room, which you can go visit, faithful in every detail to the best ability of the artisans who constructed it. It was commissioned by the Soviet government in 1979 — a few years before Kuchumov's Choral Society was finally disbanded — and took a team of forty German and Russian amber experts 24 years to complete, at a cost of many millions of dollars. Every effort was made to create as perfect a reproduction as possible, even to the point of defining 350 different shades of amber. This recreation serves a number of purposes. First (and most obviously) it shows that the Soviets were well aware they weren't going to recover the original; second, it draws a clear line in the sand against German claims demanding reparations for stolen artworks; and third, it pulls in tourist income and is a shining example of pro-Russian propaganda.
But let us not forget another purpose it serves. It tantalizes the treasure hunters, who, despite the easily accessible facts, insist that a fabulous golden room waits for them to find it in some darkened cave.
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