Certainly, one of the most unique lost treasures of all time consists not of gold, silver or precious stones, but of amber – fossilized tree resin – over six tons of it.
Dubbed The Eighth Wonder of the World by those who saw it, the Amber Room was one of the most beautiful and luxurious rooms ever built. The cavernous hall consisted of giant wall panels inlaid with over 100,000 pieces of pure, carved amber.
Arranged in three tiers, the amber panels were inlaid with precious jewels and acted as a backdrop for priceless gold-leaf mirrors, four magnificent Florentine mosaics and the most valuable collection of amber art pieces ever assembled. Today, the Amber Room would be valued at more than $250 million.
The Amber Room was created between 1701 and 1709 in Prussia and remained there until 1716 when it was gifted to Tsar Peter the Great of the Russian Empire. Enamored by its opulence, Catherine the Great later had the room installed in her palace near St. Petersburg where it remained until 1941.
The Spoils of War
When Adolf Hitler turned his Nazi war machine toward Russia, the keepers of the Amber Room grew nervous. Shortly after the beginning of the German invasion, the curators responsible for removing the art treasures of Leningrad tried to disassemble the Amber Room so it could be removed to safety. However, over the years the amber had dried out and become brittle. When they tried to remove it, the fragile amber started to crumble.
So, with the invasion forces rapidly approaching they attempted to camouflage the priceless treasure by covering it over with wallpaper. These attempts failed – the Nazis discovered the Amber Room and it was disassembled by German soldiers under the supervision of two experts then crated up and shipped to Konigsberg, Germany for storage and display in the town’s Castle.
The last days of Konigsberg
By 1945 things had gone to hell for Germany. Hitler’s Third Reich was crumbling as the Red Army swept through Germany. In Konigsberg the last vestiges of Germany’s once might Bundusfer tried desperately to defend the city, but it was a useless gesture.
After weeks of merciless shelling, Konigsberg surrendered to the Soviets on April 9, 1945.
When Soviet forces occupied the town the Amber Room was nowhere to be found. Königsberg Castle had burned shortly after the cities surrender, and all traces of the priceless treasure were lost in the fire.
Wartime confusion prohibited a proper investigation from being done so the fate of the Amber Room remains a mystery to this day — and the search for it has become one of the greatest treasure hunts of all time!
What Happened to The Amber Room?
Some historians believe the Soviets unwittingly destroyed their own treasure during the attack on the Konigsberg castle – a charge which the soviets vehemently deny – but there are many others who believe the priceless treasure was spirited away before the Soviet’s invasion.
On the night of January 30, 1945, while evacuating German soldiers and refugees trapped by the Red Army in East Prussia, the Wilhelm Gustloff was hit by three torpedoes from a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea. She sank in under 45 minutes, taking 9,400 people with her – probably the largest loss of life in a single sinking in maritime history.
Adventure author extraordinaire, Clive Cussler, uses this incident to give historical context to his 2005 novel Polar Shift.
Eyewitnesses at the time claimed to have seen hundreds of crates, believed to contain pieces of the Amber Room, at a local railway station.
One theory is that the train transported the Amber Room to the port of Gdingen where it was loaded aboard the ill fated Wilhelm Gustloff, a passenger ship which left Poland on January 30th, 1945 and was sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea.
Another possible destination for the treasure train was the Ore Mountains, where the Amber Room may have been buried in a salt mine.
Another theory is that the Amber Room was hidden in a now-lost, subterranean bunker somewhere in the city of Konigsberg. Conspiracy theorists put great credence in this theory since, during the 1960s, access to a suspected Amber Room hiding place in Konigsberg was suddenly withheld and the ruins above it were blown up by the German Army, sealing any access to the underground area forever.
Interestingly, In 1991, during a visit to Germany, Russian president Boris Yeltsin demanded the return of the Amber Room. Apparently, he is one of the many who believe the treasure still lies hidden somewhere within German borders.
Yet another intriguing theory suggests that the Red Army got to Konigsberg in time to save the Amber Room from the fire. The Russians snuck the Amber Room back to mother Russia where it remains to this day in some giant, underground, secret repository (ala Raiders of the Lost Ark) deep beneath the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
Since its disappearance in 1945 many expeditions have searched for the Amber Room; Government agencies, treasure hunters and historians have followed hundreds of leads and rumors – all with very little result.
In 1998, two separate teams (one in Germany, the other in Lithuania) announced that they had located the Amber Room, the first in a silver mine, the second buried in a lagoon; neither produced the treasure.
The case for the Amber Room’s survival got a boost recently when an Italian stone mosaic, that was part of a set of four which had decorated the Amber Room, was discovered in West Germany in the possession of the family of a German soldier who had allegedly helped pack up the Amber Room.
Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the Amber Room, there’s no denying that the disappearance of this priceless work of art is one of the world’s greatest mysteries.