The Mystery of Russia's Amber Room

The ceiling of the amber room
The ceiling of the amber room | © jeanyfan / WikiCommons
Photo of Anastasiia Ilina
15 June 2018

The Amber Room located in Catherine Palace in St Petersburg attracts many visitors every year. They come to admire the beautiful halls and the lavish décor, but also to marvel at a whole room decorated from top to bottom with amber – a room that behind its lavish exterior contains an unsolved mystery.

A royal gift

During the time of its creation at the start of the 18th century, the Amber Room was intended for the Charlottenburg Palace in Prussia and was ordered by King Friedrich. After his death, however, the heir was not too fond of the amber creation, and it was then transferred to Berlin for storage. It would have been forgotten if it weren’t for Peter the Great who was visiting Prussia at the time and was intrigued by the amber room. He was keen to acquire it for St Petersburg’s first museum. In the end, there was no need to purchase it. In a diplomatic move, the Amber Room was gifted to Peter the Great. As it turned out though, the gift arrived in Russia missing a few pieces, and the room was never installed during the time of Peter the Great, remaining forgotten for a number of years.

Lavish decor of the Amber Room | © larrywkoester/Flickr

Installation in Catherine Palace

The Amber Room project was once again revisited when Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth, came to power. She ordered the Amber Room to be installed in the Winter Palace, also known as the Hermitage. The remaining parts were replaced with amber-imitating artwork. Over time, the Amber Room was transferred to the Catherine Palace on the outskirts of St Petersburg. The final changes to the Amber Room were made during the time of Catherine the Great. For over a century, the Amber Room was a beloved space for entertaining guests and holding meetings for the Romanovs. At the time, the Amber Room was often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world and was valued at US$500 million in modern terms.

One of the lost panels replaced with a painting | © Wikimedia Commons

Mysterious disappearance

The Second World War brought massive destruction upon St Petersburg, then called Leningrad, and its environs. Palaces, such as Catherine Palace, were under constant threat of air raids and looting. Museum keepers attempted to hide artworks and valuables, but the Amber Room was too large to save. The Nazi army besieged the city, came very close to the borders of St Petersburg, and took the Tsar’s Village where the palace is located. During the looting, the Amber Room was dismantled and transported to Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad) never to be seen again. The current location of the Amber Room is unknown, although many theories have sprung up over the years based on findings of amber vases or other suspected pieces of the décor.

An amber clock | © Flickr/nimdok

The Amber Room has now been completely reconstructed, based on the photographs left from pre-war times. After almost 20 years of hard work, the Amber Room was reopened to the public in 2003, yet the search for the original treasure still continues.

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