Who stole the Amber Room?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And one thing you should know about us is that we have a deep and dividing love for American Girl dolls. I had Kirsten and Sarah had Felicity. And the only non-Felicity accessory that I think Sarah wanted was Kirsten's Amber necklace.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. I also like Addy's cowrie shell necklace, but I really loved Kirsten's little heart shaped Amber necklace.

Katie Lambert: As did I.

Sarah Dowdy: You might also know Amber because of Jurassic Park. Probably also around the same time here, the early/mid '90s a glob of it contained some mosquito and they take the DNA from it and recreate the dinosaurs, but we are not gonna be talking about Amber in either of those senses today.

Katie Lambert: No. No American Girl Dolls and no dinosaurs. Instead, we're going to talk about something more impressive and less fictional.

Sarah Dowdy: It's the Amber Room of Russia, called by some the eighth wonder of the world.

Katie Lambert: There are lots - many things are. Lots of eighth wonders; nothing is ever the eleventh wonder of the world.

Sarah Dowdy: So it's this magnificent room made out of precious Amber and gold. It's an ornate baroque masterpiece and being inside of it is often described as being inside of a jewelry box, but I kind of imagine it like Scrooge McDuck wallowing in his chamber of gold and treasure.

Katie Lambert: But the other cool thing about the Amber Room is that it's missing. So what happened to it? And that's what we're going to answer today.

Sarah Dowdy: But before we get to that, we're gonna go back to the history of the Amber Room. It's not actually from Russia. It's from Prussia and construction began in 1701. It was originally installed at the Charlottenburg Palace, which was the home of Frederick I who was the King of Prussia. It was designed by a German baroque sculptor, Andreas Schlüter and constructed by a Danish Amber craftsman, Gottfried Wolfram. So it's truly this international effort from the start.

Katie Lambert: Peter the Great of Russia managed to come around, see the Amber Room and he liked what he saw. And by this point, Frederick William I had inherited the throne from his father and he was much more interested in his army than in art, especially in completing the Amber Room, which wasn't quite finished yet. So he saw a good opportunity for diplomacy and gave the Amber Room to Peter as a gift in 1716.

Sarah Dowdy: And this cements the Russian-Prussian alliance against Sweden. And I think Russian-Prussian alliance is my new favorite hyphenated combo. The Amber Room is shipped off in 18 boxes where Russian craftsmen finish it along with German supervisors. And it's installed in the Winter House in St. Petersburg as part of a European art collection.

Katie Lambert: And the room isn't really a room. It's a series of wall panels inlaid with carved Amber, wall mirrors and four Florentine mosaics with Onyx, Quartz and Jade. And the mosaics were allegories of the senses.

Sarah Dowdy: And there are parquet floors as well and baroque, gilded wood carvings. And the Amber itself is carved into garlands and cherubs and it's all extremely intricate. And a lot of it is backed in gold leaf so that it sparkles. If you see a picture of the Amber Room it's just this golden hued baroque masterpiece, I guess you'd call it.

Katie Lambert: In 1755, Czarina Elizabeth said, "Let's move it to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, Czar's Village," but this is a bigger room. So an Italian named Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli redesigns it to fit and adds some new Amber from Berlin.

Sarah Dowdy: And according to the Smithsonian, Czarina Elizabeth used the Amber Room as her private meditation chamber, which I just - I think that's so funny imagining trying to get all Zen in the Amber Room.

Katie Lambert: In Scrooge McDuck's dig.

Sarah Dowdy: Catherine the Great used it as a gathering space: show it off to all your friends. And Alexander II used it as a trophy space. He was really into collecting Amber and filled it with a lot of interesting Amber objects, but after plenty of 18th century Russian renovations, the room eventually is 180 square feet with six tons of Amber and semiprecious stones.

Katie Lambert: It was worth $142 million in today's US dollars. So this is quite a room. It's certainly nothing like my apartment. And the Amber Room's value was sure to get it some attention during WWII from guess who: the Nazis.

Sarah Dowdy: So we know all about the Nazi's genocidal ambition, but it's coupled with something else and that's looting; looting from nations and individuals, looting money and cultural artifacts. And the Germans were majorly underfinanced at the start of the war. So to make up for that, they had to steal. And the US State Department estimates that they stole $400 million in gold from the occupied nations and $140 million in gold from individuals. And this is mostly from individuals who were sent to concentration camps. The Nazis would steal not only their personal wealth, but their jewelry; even gold fillings.

Katie Lambert: And along with this, Hitler wanted to build the best museum that ever existed in his home town. That way, Germany would also be the center of world art. And he had a wish list of works that he desired to have and managed to seize quite a bit of it.

Sarah Dowdy: So skipping ahead just a bit again: on June 22, 1941 operation Barbarossa begins and that's when three million German soldiers are sent to the Soviet Union and okay, so it goes without saying that your art and treasure obsessed Nazis are gonna know about the Amber Room and they're gonna know where it is. And it's the perfect treasure for them. It's worth a ton of money and it's representative of another goal which is to bring German works of art back to Germany. So the curators at Catherine Palace try to hide the Amber Room knowing that the Nazis will likely take it if they find it. And they try to take down the paneling, but because it's dried out and in need of restoration, it starts to crumble. So instead, they paper it over hoping that the Nazis won't notice.

Katie Lambert: But that doesn't fool the German soldiers. They find it, disassemble the paneling and pack it in 27 crates to ship to Königsberg, Germany which today, is Kaliningrad, Russia. And interestingly enough, this happens to be the center of the Amber industry for the past 300 years.

Sarah Dowdy: So the Amber Room is reassembled in the Castle Museum at Königsberg and Alfred Rota is in charge of the museum and he's really interested in Amber and he studies the panels that make up the room. And he puts it on display and it's on display there for two years.

Katie Lambert: In 1943, the Germans are in the same position Russia had been in two years earlier: someone is coming, in this case, the Allies who might want the Amber Room, so what are they going to do with it? Can they hide it? And Rota is told to pack it up. This is where it's last seen in crates.

Sarah Dowdy: So August, 1944, the Allies bomb the city and the museum castle and it's destroyed. About a year later: April 9, 1945, Stalin's Red Army enters the city, burns everything and annexes Königsberg and Kaliningrad. So here's our question: what happened to the Amber Room? Where did it go? Does it still exist? And what condition would it be in?

Katie Lambert: Since then, the majority of the Amber Room has been missing and everyone from the KGB to amateur Amber Room hunters have tried to find it. And there are a lot of theories about what happened to it. They get weirder and weirder. So Sarah and I are gonna name a few. One: the crates were destroyed when the allied bombs hit the building.

Sarah Dowdy: Another is that the crates survived the bombing, but were destroyed in the Red Army fire. Dysenteries about this theory say that if the Amber had been burned, the whole city would have smelled of it because after all, it is tree resin. And interestingly, the way you test the authenticity of Amber is by warming a pin and if you can smell the scent, it's real. Although, I think counterfeiters can get around that by coating it in a real layer.

Katie Lambert: Another idea is that the Amber is still in Kaliningrad still hidden.

Sarah Dowdy: And another is that the room was spirited away and hidden somewhere else in Europe. Theories range from the Czech Republic to Germany.

Katie Lambert: Or perhaps it wound up on a ship and is now sunken in the Baltic.

Sarah Dowdy: And then here are some of our kind of strange theories. Stalin had a second Amber Room and the Germans actually stole a decoy or Hitler's body wasn't burned. It was actually buried with the Amber Room, which doesn't really explain where the Amber Room is.

Katie Lambert: No, that makes no sense, but it's still fun.

Sarah Dowdy: But we're gonna go into a little more detail on some of the recent theories about the Amber Room. In 2004, British investigative journalists concluded that it had probably been destroyed in the Königsberg Castle fire. Stalin however, wouldn't have bought this idea. He believed that the Amber was shipped out before the bombings and consequently, in 1945 and '47 ordered that the Castle ruins be searched for any trace of Amber. None was found and so the KGB and the Stasi, the German Secret Police tried to find it instead. They got a go at it.

Katie Lambert: The search actually became important to the Soviets as Cold War propaganda. It's still a patriotic point for many Russians, but there's more to it than that. In 2008, two men: Heinz Peter Haustein and Christian Hanisch insisted that Nazi gold and maybe even the Amber Room were in Deutschkatharinenberg, Germany. And it was slow going because they believed there might be booby-traps guarding it. But Haustein later redacted his claim that they may have found the Amber Room and said it was just going to be gold.

Sarah Dowdy: And we actually have a great Julia Layton article on this, which is "Could Treasure Hunters Have Discovered Nazi Gold?" And I think there's an earlier podcast on it too. And in breaking news, this story is happening right now. Sergei Trifonov thinks that he's found the Amber Room under a bunker, or thinks that it might be located under a bunker in Kaliningrad. And even if this hunt comes to nothing, the museum in Kaliningrad is benefiting because this guy's actually pumping out water from the old bunker. So any maintenance is good I guess. But they're looking right now, so maybe by the time we publish we'll have another thing to add to this.

Katie Lambert: And if not, maybe we will be able to put it on our Twitter where we put some really cool history stories. You should find us. We're at Missed in History.

Sarah Dowdy: So huge discoveries of Nazi gold and other artworks and loot have been made though. And probably the biggest one was right in 1945 when Patton's Army discovered the mercury's mine. The Nazi gold we were talking about earlier was largely kept in the Reich's bunk, but after 1945 much of it was transferred to mines that were far outside of Berlin because it would be safer there. When the allies get wind of the mine, they check it out and find an enormous room stacked high with gold and also silver and cash and masterpieces of art from Rembrandt and Renoir and Raphael. But if the Amber Room is buried in some deep mine like this, would it even be okay? Amber is not like gold or silver.

Katie Lambert: And the answer is probably not. According to Amber expert, Alexander Shedrinksy, if it's hidden in a mine, it's probably ruined. And it needed to be restored even before it was stolen, so it would only have deteriorated more.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, we've mentioned that the Russians were unable to take it down because it was crumbling. So you can only imagine what a state it was in after being packed and crated all these times and potentially buried somewhere.

Katie Lambert: By the late 1970s, the Russians gave up on seriously searching for the original Amber Room and instead commissioned a replica. Work began in 1982 and it was a really daunting task. The craftsmen working on it had to relearn the skills of the Amber Guilds like cutting, carving and dying Amber, which isn't something we really do anymore.

Sarah Dowdy: So these were long dead skills, at least on this scale. And funding for the project stopped in the mid '90s, but it was saved by a $3.5 million donation from Ruhrgas which is a German natural gas company. So it was this rekindling of the old alliance from the Germans.

Katie Lambert: The Russian-Prussian point of view.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, the Russian-Prussian. And another special $10,000 came from a woman in Manhattan to purchase great pieces of Amber that had just come on the market and this is according to the New York Times. And that was significant not so much because of the amount. Obviously $10,000 versus $3.5 million, but because these pieces of amber had been held in private collections for so long they had to be bought as soon as they appeared.

Katie Lambert: And the recreation of the Amber Room was entirely based on old black and white photos and the memories of museum curators. But then in 1997, craftsmen finally got to compare their work to the original when German art detectives heard someone was trying to sell part of the Amber Room.

Sarah Dowdy: So they go to the sellers' lawyer's office and they end up finding an original mosaic panel in Bremen. Which I think a German art detective sounds like a pretty fun job; our next job maybe. So objects from the Amber Room had managed to survive though and we knew where they were. The Russians were able to hide things like tables and jewelry boxes and chest sets made of amber in Siberia. And in 2003, the new $11 million Amber Room opened.

Katie Lambert: Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schroeder dedicated it at the 300-year anniversary of St. Petersburg.

Sarah Dowdy: But there's still the question: if the original Amber Room does show up; if somebody manages to find it, who owns it? And toward the end of the 20th century, countries got a little more serious about making efforts to return stolen Nazi gold and Nazi items to individuals and to countries. And if the individuals weren't around to receive them, to donate them to humanitarian groups, especially those that benefit holocaust survivors. But the Geneva Conventions dictate that items of cultural significance so like your Rembrandt or your Amber Room be returned to the country that they came from. So if you're an Amber Room hunter, it's not like you're gonna be able to keep it for yourself. It assuredly would go back to Russia.

Katie Lambert: And another note for would-be Amber Room hunters, there is a so called Amber Room curse. Alfred Rota, the director at the Königsberg museum and his wife died of typhus while the KGB was investigating the room. And George Stein, an Amber Room hunter and former German soldier was murdered in 1987 in the forest near Munich, so maybe not quite the King Tut's tomb curse, but still something to think about. And we'd like to mention that this was also a listener request from Gavin.

Sarah Dowdy: And Gavin actually got to visit the recreated Amber Room and noted that you're not allowed to take photographs in it, which is interesting. I wonder if the flash would just bounce everywhere and blind everyone.

Katie Lambert: And some people say that in the Amber Room you can feel heat rising off the walls like there's some sort of bizarre energy field.

Sarah Dowdy: Which yeah, is something that the Czars would report too that there was an energy field. But the heat in the Amber Room might just be because there are 500 candles to make it extra glittery.

Katie Lambert: So if you've had an experience at the Amber Room, send us an e-mail and let us know: historypodcast@howstuffworks.com. And that brings us to listener mail. Today's listener mail is actual mail, which is our favorite kind of mail. And we got a postcard of the Devils Postpile National Monument from a listener who said, "Happy New Year's ladies. I really enjoy the show and I heard you ask for postcards. So here is another to add to your hopefully growing collection. Keep up your wonderful work." So thank you to Kay. And we also got a really fabulous card from a listener named Rachel that she designed herself.

Sarah Dowdy: Handmade card.

Katie Lambert: Yes, it's really gorgeous. She said, "Love your podcast. I'm a freelance illustrator and listen a lot while working. I was putting Valentine's together over the weekend and your podcast on great battle horses came on while I was drawing the horse on this card. I don't know how well he would do in battle though; looks a bit skittish." And it's really gorgeous and it has Morrissey lyrics on the front. And if you'd like to check out her website, it's Rachel-Harris.com.

Sarah Dowdy: But back to the Nazi gold: we've got a great article on it. It's called Could Treasure Hunters Have Discovered Nazi Gold? We mentioned it earlier. You'll find it on our website at www.howstuffworks.com.

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