Mysteries of the Lost Amber Room

Paul Stonehill

The year 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. The generation that fought World War II is now fading from the scene, but many questions from that time remain to be answered. One of these concerns the whereabouts of Russia’s greatest lost treasure: the Amber Room of Frederick I. This priceless work of decorative art was stolen from Russia by the Nazis and taken to the city of Königsberg, from which it vanished in the waning days of the war.


The Setting


Königsberg (later Kaliningrad) is an ice-free port city situated on the Baltic Sea coast, the farthest western corner of modern Russia. It was founded by the Teutonic knights when they spread eastward during the 13th century.


Ever since its foundation, Köningsberg has been a city of paradoxes and enigmas. The knights originally planned to build the city some 200 kilometers to the east, at the Neman River. During their rest stop at a mountain that contained a heathen place of worship, the knights observed a solar eclipse. The Teutonic Order’s Magisters considered the phenomenon to be a sign from God, and decided not to disobey it. The mountain later became known as Königs Berg, or Royal Mountain.


In 1255 the main castle of Königsberg was founded on the bank of the Pregel River. A ring of 15 fortresses (allegedly united by a system of underground tunnels) surrounds the city.

Formerly the capital of the dukes of
Prussia and later the capital of East Prussia, Königsberg was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1945 under the Potsdam agreement. The city’s strategic importance was all too apparent to Stalin. In June of 1941 it had been used by the Germans as a staging ground for one of the main assaults against Soviet Russia, and it remained a very important naval base for the duration of the war. Over 100,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in the operation to take the city from the Germans.


Counter Attack at Königsberg

German forces encircled in the fortress town of
Königsberg by
3rd Ukranian front prepare to break through the besieging
Soviet lines to re-establish a supply line to the Baltic.
Here some Stug III assault guns moved up to their assembly
area next to the towns World War One memorial.
From here the attack was launched on February 18, 1945 and successfully opened a supply corridor which remained in place until April 8, 1945

In 1946 the Königsberg area was sealed off from the rest of the Soviet Union. Renamed Kaliningrad, it became a vital military outpost. An ugly House of Soviets replaced the ruins of Königsberg Castle that remained in the center of the city.


When the city was part of the Nazi Reich, it was under the control of the murderous Erich Koch. Koch treated the city’s people with great cruelty as he carried out Hitler’s plans. After the war, Koch hid from justice under a false name. In 1959 he was found and sentenced to death. Due to his bad health he was kept in prison until he died in 1986. Koch took a number of secrets to his grave.


Among Koch’s last statements was the assertion, “Where lies my treasure, there also lies the Amber Room.”


The Amber Room

Yantarnaya komnata (the Amber Room) was built as Frederick I’s study at Königsberg Castle in 1711. Five years later, it was given as a present to Peter the Great to commemorate Prussia’s alliance with Russia. It was later installed in the palace of Catherine the Great at Tsarskoye Selo, the opulent summer residence of the Russian royal family just outside St. Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad).


The Amber Room’s decorations covered 1,800 square feet and consisted of handcrafted panels made of six tons of amber (the lightest gem in the world) and Italian mosaics decorated with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. It is often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World. People believed that it possessed magical energy. There is a belief in the Baltics that amber (“northern gold” and “sun-drenched stone”) has miraculous healing powers.


When the German armies besieged Leningrad during the Second World War, they dismantled the famous Amber Room. (The desperate Soviets attempted to hide the Amber Room by wallpapering over it.) Soon after the Amber Room was seized, the Nazis sent west by train. It was taken back to Königsberg Castle and displayed in one of the halls of the Königsberg Museum.


Just before the capitulation of the city in 1945, the Germans once again dismantled the room and packed it in crates, intending to ship it back to Berlin. It has never been seen since. The hunt for the collection of jewel-encrusted panels that make up the Amber Room has been a great post-war quest. For five decades the KGB, the Stasi (East German secret police), and unknown others have failed in the search.


Lethal Treasures


Vera Bruyussova, widow of a noted Soviet archaeologist charged to look for the treasure, revealed that her husband, Alexander, wrote a memo to the Soviet leadership in 1955 stating: “I do not believe that the treasure is lost.”


There have been many speculations as to what had happened to it, and some people are convinced that the diligent quest has brought death and misfortune to those involved (the so-called Curse of the Amber Room).


Russian newspapers reported last year that a Soviet team charged with finding the Amber Room secretly petitioned Moscow in 1984. They asked why their team was prevented from freely investigating the fate of the room, complaining that the Soviet military and KGB had hampered it.


A general of Russian intelligence named Gusev reportedly died in a mysterious automobile accident after he talked to a newspaper reporter about the Amber Room. Very little is known about this incident.


Some believe the Amber Room perished in a fire when a Soviet bomb hit the Königsberg castle in the 1945 Red Army offensive. Leonid Arinshtein, a World War II veteran and an advisor to the Russian Culture Fund president, believes Königsberg was set on fire before the city was captured. The castle started burning on the second or third day after the city had been captured. A German caretaker who was there on April 8 told Arinshtein that the Amber Room’s panels, packed in boxes, were kept in the basement of the castle.

Fate of Russia's Lost Art Treasure Revealed After 60-year Cover-up



Steven Spielberg would have called it Indiana Jones and the Eighth Wonder, and supplied a happy ending. In a damp cellar, guarded by deadly snakes and senile but savage SS men, the holy grail of Russian art treasures would triumphantly have been liberated.

According to evidence disclosed today in Guardian Weekend, the truth is more squalid. Peter the Great's 18th century Amber Room, rated as the world's prime missing art treasure, valued at £150m, perished in the chaos of the wartime collapse of Nazi Germany.

Sixty years of looking for it have been futile. And it was not destroyed or hidden as loot by the Germans who had stolen it, as often assumed. It was lost in a fire while in the hands of occupying Red Army troops in a castle they captured in Königsberg, Germany.

Russia - according to the Weekend article - inadvertently destroyed one of its finest artefacts and officials have been trying to conceal the fact ever since.

The room, fully panelled and ornamented in amber, then 12 times more precious than gold, was built by German craftsmen as a present for Peter the Great in 1717.

When Germany invaded Russia, craftsmen at the Catherine Palace tried to mask the amber with gauze and fake wallpaper. But when enemy troops captured the palace - just outside what was then Leningrad, now St Petersburg - they penetrated the disguise and dismantled it. It was known to have been stored at Königsberg. But there, after the war, its trail vanished.

The mystery of the disappearance of what was once called the eighth wonder of the world produced a welter of searches, books, conspiracy theories and, in Germany, an Indiana Jones-style film.

Last year the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, attended an unveiling of a replica of the room at the Catherine Palace, named after Catherine the Great.

Guests were given a brochure expressing confidence that the original amber room "has not perished and will be found as a result of properly organised searches".

But the authors of the study say they have found previously unused archive papers kept by the chief official postwar searcher for the Amber Room, Anatoly Kuzumov.

These show Kuzumov was told by a castle staff member in 1946 that the hall where the stolen room was kept had burned down after Red Army artillerymen occupied the building. However, the authors add, Kuzumov omitted this account from his report to his government.

This, they suggest, was because he felt responsible for failing to hide the room from the Germans and had an interest in perpetuating the myth that it still existed.

But Russian officials appear to be accepting its loss. "It doesn't exist any more," Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Leningrad Hermitage museum, told the authors. "It's dead, destroyed. The thing was burned during the Königsberg fire."


The Red Army had no reason to set its country’s newly recovered treasures on fire. That means some other force, perhaps a Nazi underground group, an agile, deadly, and swift underground force, was carrying out the orders of the Reich. The Red Army was engaged in a fierce, deadly battle to capture a city protected by the complex fortress system and did not control the situation yet. The fire was spreading from the outskirts to the center of the city, Soviet troops were exhausted after months-old battles in Prussia, German forces were fighting in the port area, and almost all of the population was evacuated. Entire neighborhoods were burning and chaos reigned.


If some unknown group has been concealing knowledge of the Amber Room’s location, its operatives have been quite effective.


A Deadly Quest


Mysterious deaths attributed to the knowledge about the room include that of Dr. Alfred Rohde. Rohde was in control of the Amber Room as the director of the Königsberg museum under the Nazi regime. He and his wife died from typhoid the day before their scheduled interrogation by NKVD (the KGB of the period). Soviet intelligence officers did not find bodies of the deceased couple. Apparently, they opened the tomb in early 1946, but it was empty. Just recently it was learned, from an interview with Russian Naval archaeologists (Izvestiya, October 31, 2003), that Dr. Rohde had been able to disappear from the Soviet control for several days and probably left Koenigsberg to check something outside the city. He later returned, only to die…or vanish forever. Russian researchers believe he visited the Pillau Castle (formerly a German submarine base).


Another strange disappearance was that of the doctor who signed the death certificates of the Rohdes. Then there was Georg Stein, the relentless investigator of the Amber Room’s whereabouts. He was found dead and naked, in the middle of a forest in Germany, his stomach ripped apart by a scalpel.


Stein was a German researcher who helped to deliver to the Soviets hundreds of displaced “cultural valuables” (Nazi-looted treasures). But the Soviets would not allow him enter the forbidden Kaliningrad region, although he sent them thousands of pages of archives, according to Avenir Ovsyanov, who continues the quest.


Ovsyanov was once a military engineering student. Under orders of his superiors he and his classmates blew up the remaining ruins of the Königs­­berg Castle. He was a young soldier then and is not at all happy now about his involvement. In an interview to Izvestiya in 2003 he stated that the ruined castle was finally demolished in 1968.


Soviet Investigations


Ovsyanov, now chief of the Department for Search for Cultural Valuables of the Kaliningrad region, revealed several interesting details in 2002.


In the summer of 1945, a special Soviet team headed by T. L. Beljayeva, was sent to Königsberg. Beljayeva’s group found Russian valuables looted by Nazis, including libraries, monographs, crowns, paintings, and archaeological collections. Apparently, some of these came from Tsarskoye Selo.


A team sent by the Committee for Arts of the USSR was also operating in the area, collecting Nazi-looted antiques. Sixty crates of cultural valuables collected by the Beljayeva group remained in Königsberg, but no one knows what happened to them. The best sources are diaries and private letters.


Other recovered cultural valuables were ultimately “withdrawn” by operatives of the NKVD or KGB. It would be interesting to find out about the Soviet intelligence agents who had worked in Nazi-controlled Königsberg, but the KGB files have been out of reach of even Russian researchers.


In 1967 the Soviet government created a special commission to search for the Amber Room and other museum valuables. It was headquartered in Moscow, and its arm in the Baltics was the Kaliningrad archaeological expedition (KGAE). This group was denied access to many top-secret areas, and was hampered by bureaucracy. The KGAE was itself a secret group and as such, its work was classified. Yet even this group was denied access to the secret archives concerning looted Soviet treasures. According to Ovsyanov, the archives still remain closed, although the Soviet Union is no more. The KGAE was disbanded in 1983.


The nefarious East German Stasi also spent years trying to find the Amber Room. This organization’s efforts included the creation of a special unit that functioned during the 1970s and ’80s.


The Quest Continues


A former Soviet architect of Kaliningrad named Maximov recalled that when the Soviets captured the city they found a freshly flooded well in a western wing of the castle. It sloped downward to great depths. Some believe that this is where the Amber Room was hidden. Russian and German archaeologists who explored the basements of the castle found ancient weapons and jewelry.


Ovsyanov, though, points out that prior to the final destruction of the castle in 1968 the basements surely had been visited because they were easily accessible.


Another possible location of the Amber Room may be in the subterranean vaults of the old Pillau (Baltiysk) castle. It is quite possible that Dr. Rohde came there when he slipped from the grasp of the NKVD. Pillau, the main base of the Russian Baltic Navy, is located west of Kaliningrad. The castle vaults were sealed off in the 1940s, after the Soviets learned that German troops had filled the area with explosives and mines.


The Nazis used the castle as military headquarters for the defense of Pillau. When Red Army troops entered the castle, not a single German officer was found. They had used secret passageways to escape the fortress. The area was then used as a top-secret Soviet Naval base.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was the first purpose-built cruise liner for the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF) and used by subsidiary organisation Kraft durch Freude (KdF) (Strength Through Joy). The Gustloff's final voyage was during Operation Hannibal in January 1945, when it was sunk while participating in the evacuation of civilians and personnel who were surrounded by the Red Army in East Prussia. The Gustloff was hit by three torpedoes from the Soviet submarine S-13 in the Baltic Sea on the night of 30 January 1945 and sank in less than 45 minutes.

The Discovery Channel program Unsolved History undertook a computer analysis (using software called maritime EXODUS) of the sinking, which estimated 9,400 dead − 85% (among over 10,600 on board); this analysis considered the load density based on witness reports and a simulation of escape routes and survivability with the timeline of the sinking. If accurate, this would be the largest known loss of life occurring during a single ship sinking in recorded maritime history.

Did the Amber Room escape on board the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff only to be torpedoed in the Baltic by an enemy submarine? Russian archaeologists believe that Nazis would not have risked transporting precious art objects through the dangerous waters of the Baltic Sea, where Soviet submarines lay in waiting. There are speculations that the Amber Room is hidden on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Recent finds in the area support such assumption.


International treasure hunters have searched endlessly for the Amber Room, digging up cellars and salt mines, scouring churches and caves. They’ve looked in Austria, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic. Some believe that the Amber Room may still be hidden somewhere in half-flooded caves under Kaliningrad. Several divers have lost their lives trying to find out if the Nazis buried the Amber Room there.


Hans Stadelman, a steadfast German researcher, believes the Nazis hid the panels below a building in the town of Weimar.


On the beaches of the Kaliningrad region one can collect fragments of natural amber, thrown out by waves of the Baltic Sea. But the sea and its shores have been hiding their secrets well.


In 1997, German police found one of the Amber Room’s mosaics. The son of a former German officer, who had accompanied the Amber Room on its way to Königsberg during the war, was selling the piece through his lawyer. It was a panel measuring 55 by 70.5 centimeters, depicting two couples lounging in a garden with their dogs. Apparently, his father was a truck driver for the German Army, and took the panel in 1941, as his convoy was bombed. After the recovery the panel was returned to Russia.


The city of paradoxes may face its evils again. East European criminals who engage in contraband, white slavery and drug smuggling use Kaliningrad for their transit needs. The old Gestapo building is used by the ­Russian secret police (the FSB). There have been increased neo-Nazi activities in Kaliningrad, by Germans and by ethnic Russian supporters of fascist and nationalistic movements. Erich Koch would have been proud.

A Brief History of the Amber Room

By Jess Blumberg
August 1, 2007

While many Americans associate amber with the casing for dinosaur DNA in 1993's Jurassic Park, the stone has enthralled Europeans, and especially Russians, for centuries because of the golden, jewel-encrusted Amber Room, which was made of several tons of the gemstone. A gift to Peter the Great in 1716 celebrating peace between Russia and Prussia, the room's fate became anything but peaceful: Nazis looted it during World War II, and in the final months of the war, the amber panels, which had been packed away in crates, disappeared.

A replica was completed in 2003, but the contents of the original, dubbed "the Eighth Wonder of the World," have remained missing for decades.

Golden Gift

Construction of the Amber Room began in 1701. It was originally installed at Charlottenburg Palace, home of Friedrich I, the first King of Prussia. Truly an international collaboration, the room was designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and constructed by the Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram. Peter the Great admired the room on a visit, and in 1716 the King of Prussia - then Frederick William I - presented it to the Peter as a gift, cementing a Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.

The Amber Room was shipped to Russia in 18 large boxes and installed in the Winter House in St. Petersburg as a part of a European art collection. In 1755, Tsaritsa Elizabeth ordered the room to be moved to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, named Tsarskoye Selo, or "Tsar's Village." Italian designer Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli redesigned the room to fit into its new, larger space using additional amber shipped from Berlin.

After other 18th-century renovations, the room covered about 180 square feet and glowed with six tons of amber and other semi-precious stones. The amber panels were backed with gold leaf, and historians estimate that, at the time, the room was worth $142 million in today's dollars. Over time, the Amber Room was used as a private meditation chamber for Tsaritsa Elizabeth, a gathering room for Catherine the Great and a trophy space for amber connoisseur Alexander II.

Nazi Looting

On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler initiated Operation Barbarossa, which launched three million German soldiers into the Soviet Union. The invasion led to the looting of tens of thousands of art treasures, including the illustrious Amber Room, which the Nazis believed was made by Germans and, most certainly, made for Germans.

As the forces moved into Pushkin, officials and curators of the Catherine Palace attempted to disassemble and hide the Amber Room. When the dry amber began to crumble, the officials instead tried hiding the room behind thin wallpaper. But the ruse didn't fool the German soldiers, who tore down the Amber Room within 36 hours, packed it up in 27 crates and shipped it to Königsberg, Germany (present-day Kaliningrad). The room was reinstalled in Königsberg's castle museum on the Baltic Coast.

The museum's director, Alfred Rohde, was an amber aficionado and studied the room's panel history while it was on display for the next two years. In late 1943, with the end of the war in sight, Rohde was advised to dismantle the Amber Room and crate it away. In August of the following year, allied bombing raids destroyed the city and turned the castle museum into ruins. And with that, the trail of the Amber Room was lost.

Conspiracies, Curses and Construction

It seems hard to believe that crates of several tons of amber could go missing, and many historians have tried to solve the mystery. The most basic theory is that the crates were destroyed by the bombings of 1944. Others believe that the amber is still in Kaliningrad, while some say it was loaded onto a ship and can be found somewhere at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. In 1997, a group of German art detectives got a tip that someone was trying to hawk a piece of the Amber Room. They raided the office of the seller's lawyer and found one of the room's mosaic panels in Bremen, but the seller was the son of a deceased soldier and had no idea as to the panel's origin. One of the more extreme theories is that Stalin actually had a second Amber Room and the Germans stole a fake.

Another bizarre aspect of this story is the "Amber Room Curse." Many people connected to the room have met untimely ends. Take Rohde and his wife, for example, who died of typhus while the KGB was investigating the room. Or General Gusev, a Russian intelligence officer who died in a car crash after he talked to a journalist about the Amber Room. Or, most disturbing of all, Amber Room hunter and former German soldier Georg Stein, who in 1987 was murdered in a Bavarian forest.

The history of the new Amber Room, at least, is known for sure. The reconstruction began in 1979 at Tsarskoye Selo and was completed 25 years—and $11 million—later. Dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the new room marked the 300-year anniversary of St. Petersburg in a unifying ceremony that echoed the peaceful sentiment behind the original. The room remains on display to the public at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve outside of St. Petersburg.



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