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The Amber Room (sometimes known as the Amber Chamber, Russian: Янтарная комната Yantarnaya komnata, German: Bernsteinzimmer) in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg is a complete chamber decoration of amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors. Created in the 18th century, it disappeared during World War II, and was recreated in 2003.
Before it was lost, the Amber Room was sometimes dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World" due to its singular beauty. Construction of the Amber Room took place from 1701 to 1711 in Prussia. The room was designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram in the service of the Prussian king; they worked on it until 1707, then work was continued by amber masters Gottfried Turau and Ernst Schacht from Danzig. The amber cabinet remained in Berlin City Palace until 1716 when it was given by Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I to his then ally, Tsar Peter the Great of the Russian Empire. In Russia it was expanded and after several renovations, it covered more than 55 square metres and contained over six tonnes of amber. It was finished in 1755 and restored in 1830. The Amber Room was looted during World War II by Nazi Germany and brought to Königsberg. Knowledge of its whereabouts was lost in the chaos at the end of the war.
In 1979, efforts were undertaken to rebuild the Amber Room at Tsarskoye Selo. In 2003, after decades of work by Russian craftsmen, financed by donations from Germany, the reconstructed Amber Room was inaugurated in the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Amber Room was made from 1701 onwards in order to be installed at Charlottenburg Palace, home of Friedrich I, the first king of Prussia, at the urging of his second wife, Sophie Charlotte. The concept of the room and its design was by Andreas Schlüter. It was crafted by Gottfried Wolfram, master craftsman to the Danish court of King Frederick IV of Denmark, with help from the amber masters Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turau from Danzig.
Although originally intended for installation at Charlottenburg Palace, the complete panels were eventually installed at Berlin City Palace. The Amber Room did not, however, remain at Berlin Castle for long. Peter the Great admired it on a visit and in 1716, Friedrich Wilhelm I, the first king's son, presented it to him, and with that act cemented a Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.
The original Berlin design was reworked into the Amber Room in Russia in a joint effort of German and Russian craftsmen. After several other 18th century renovations, it covered more than 55 square metres and contained over 6 tonnes (13,000 lb) of amber. It took over ten years to construct.
Shortly after the beginning of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II (Operation Barbarossa), the curators responsible for removing the art treasures in Leningrad tried to disassemble and remove the Amber Room. Over the years the amber had dried out and become brittle, so that when they tried to remove it, the fragile amber started to crumble. The Amber Room was therefore hidden behind mundane wallpaper, in an attempt to keep German forces from seizing it. However, the attempt to hide such a well-known piece of art failed.
German soldiers disassembled the Amber Room within 36 hours under the supervision of two experts. On 14 October 1941, Rittmeister Graf Solms-Laubach commanded the evacuation of 27 crates to Königsberg in East Prussia, for storage and display in the town's castle. On 13 November 1941, the newspaper Königsberger Allgemeine Zeitung reported on an exhibition of part of the "Bernsteinzimmer" in Königsberg Castle.
Orders given by Hitler given on 21 January and 24 January 1945 ordered the movement of looted possessions from Königsberg. This allowed Albert Speer's administration to transport culture goods of priority. However, before the Amber Room could be moved Erich Koch who was in charge of civil administration in Königsberg during the final months of the war abandoned his post and fled from the city, leaving General Otto Lasch in command of the Wehrmacht in Königsberg. In August 1944, Königsberg was heavily fire bombed by the Royal Air Force. It suffered further extensive damage from Soviet artillery from the advancing Russian Army before the final occupation on 9 April 1945. Königsberg remained thereafter under Soviet control, eventually renamed Kaliningrad.
After the war, the Amber Room was never seen in public again, though reports have occasionally surfaced stating that components of the Amber Room survived the war. Alleged eyewitnesses claimed that crates had been sighted at the railway station. They might have been put aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff which left Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on 30 January 1945, and was sunk by a Soviet submarine or hidden in a secret location.
There are many differing theories about the fate of the Amber Room, which can be categorized into two basic types. One is that the room was destroyed in the war; the second is that the room survived the war but was hidden. Both theories can be divided further into two subtheories: that the room or its remnants remained in Königsberg at the end of the war, or that they were moved to a new location outside Königsberg near the end of the war. The lack of hard evidence and the numerous conflicting testimonies from public and secret sources has either supported or denied these theories. Many different persons and groups, including a number of different entities from the governments of the Soviet Union and East Germany, have mounted extensive searches for it at various times since the war, but without success.
Many times groups have announced they were on the verge of success in locating the Amber Room only to see their efforts prove fruitless. For example, at one point 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 Amber Room. "If the Amber Room lies hidden somewhere in some damp mine, it means it is almost certainly in a state of ruin," says Dr. Alexander Shedrinsky, a Russian-born amber expert and chemist who is an adjunct professor of conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. "Even before it was stolen, it was in poor shape, in need of restoration, and the amber pieces were falling out."
However, in 1997 one Italian stone mosaic that allegedly was part of a set of four which had decorated the Amber Room did turn up in western Germany, in the possession of the family of a soldier who claimed he had helped pack up the Amber Room. The mosaic now rests in the hands of Russian authorities and was used in the reconstruction effort to rebuild the Amber Room.
British investigative journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy conducted lengthy research on the fate of the Amber Room, including extensive archival research in Russia, and in 2004 published their book, The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure. In it, they concluded that the Amber Room was most likely destroyed when Königsberg Castle was burned down, shortly after Königsberg surrendered to occupying Soviet forces.
Documents from the archives showed that that was also the conclusion of the report of Alexander Brusov, chief of the first formal mission sent by the Soviet government to find the Amber Room, who wrote in June, 1945: "Summarizing all the facts, we can say that the Amber Room was destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945". These dates correspond with the end of the Battle of Königsberg which concluded on 9 April with the surrender of the German garrison. Some years later, Brusov gave a contrary opinion; the book authors insinuate that this change of opinion was likely due to pressure from other Soviet officials, who did not want to be seen as responsible for the loss of the Amber Room. In 1968, Soviet Premier, Leonid Brezhnev citing Prussian Militarism ordered the demolition of Königsberg Castle, despite protests from academics worldwide, thus making any onsite research of the last known resting place of the Amber Room all but impossible.
Among other information from the archives was the revelation that the remains of the rest of the set of Italian stone mosaics were found in the burned debris of the castle. The authors' reasoning as to why the Soviets conducted extensive searches for the Amber Room in the years after World War II, even though their own experts had concluded that it was destroyed, is that it served the differing motives of several elements in the Soviet government: some wished to obscure (even from other branches of the Soviet government) the possibility that Soviet soldiers may have been responsible for its destruction; others found the theft of the Amber Room a useful Cold War propaganda tool, and did not want to let go of a grievance that could be aired advantageously; still others did not want to share the blame for its destruction (through their failure to evacuate the Amber Room to safety at the start of the war).
Russian officials have denied the book's conclusions – angrily, in some cases. According to Adelaida Yolkina, senior researcher at the Pavlovsk Museum Estate: "It is impossible to see the Red Army being so careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed." Other Russian experts were less skeptical, and had a different emphasis in their responses. Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, was very cautious in his comments, and said: "Most importantly, the destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is the fault of the people who started the war". In reply, Catherine Scott-Clark, one of the authors, indicated that they only came to their conclusions with reluctance: "when we started working on this issue we were hoping to be able to find the Amber Room."
Since the book came out, a Russian veteran has given an interview in which he confirmed their basic conclusion as to the fate of the Amber Room, although he denies that the fires were deliberate. "I probably was one of the last people who saw the Amber Room", said Leonid Arinshtein, a literature expert with the nongovernmental Russian Culture Foundation, who was a Red Army lieutenant in charge of a rifle platoon in Königsberg in 1945. He said that the whole city was burning due to massive bombing, denying the allegations that the Soviet army burned the city on purpose: “What soldiers would burn the city where they will have to stay?".
A variation of this theory by some present-day residents of Kaliningrad, is that at least part of the room was found in the Königsberg Castle cellars after World War II by the Red Army. The Amber Room was allegedly still in good condition. This was not admitted at the time in order that blame should continue to rest upon the Nazis. To preserve this story, access to the ruins of the castle, which was allowed after WWII, was suddenly restricted to all, even to historical/archaeological surveys right up to the demolition of the ruins in 1968. The Dom Sovetov was built over the central area. According to some, the remains of the room may still be underground.
Starting in 1979, and lasting for 24 years, a new Amber Room reconstruction effort began at Tsarskoye Selo. Using original drawings and old black and white photographs, every attempt was made to duplicate the original Amber Room. This included the 350 shades of amber in the original panels and fixtures that adorned the room. Another major problem was the lack of skilled workers, since amber carving was considered a nearly lost art form. The financial difficulties that plagued the project from the start were solved with USD $3.5 million donated by the German company Ruhrgas AG. By 2003, the titanic work of the Russian craftsmen was mostly completed. The new room was dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at the 300-year anniversary of the city of Saint Petersburg. Many art and architecture historians are pleased with the new finished masterpiece.
In Kleinmachnow, near Berlin, there is a miniature Amber Room, fabricated after the original. The Berlin miniature collector Ulla Klingbeil had this copy made of original East Prussian amber. The exhibit fee at Europarc Dreilinden is donated to the Arilex-Verein Foundation to aid handicapped children.
The mystery of the Amber Room has been the basis for the plot of several films, books and art exhibitions.
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