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The Amber Room

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Quick Facts:


• Amber, an orange gem, is actually the anciently dried resin from prehistoric trees; it was made (in)famous by the film Jurassic Park.
• The Amber Room was created from several tons of carved amber and plenty of gemstones.
• The 'Room' is actually a series of large amber panels, mosaics and mirrors which covered the inside of a chamber.
• Nazi soldiers looted the complete room during World War 2; its fate, or location, is still unknown.

Origins:

Amber wasn't commonly used to cover large interiors when, in 1701, architect Andreas Schluter decided to use it in rebuilding Frederick I of Prussia's Great Royal Palace in Berlin. Craftsmen from Sweden, Holland and Germany, including acknowledged amber master Gottfried Turau, worked with tons of material for twelve years to make the large amber panels needed for a single room. However, Frederick I died in 1713 and as his heir, Frederick Wilhelm I, had more martial interests, worked stopped.

A Gift To Russia:

Although incomplete, the Amber Room was still a stunning creation with many admirers, including Russian Tsar Peter the Great, who saw it during an official visit to Berlin. Unimpressed by the amber, but impressed with the Tsar, Frederick Wilhelm gave Peter the room and in 1717 the panels were dissembled, packaged up and sent on an especially long journey to St. Petersburg. However, Russian craftsmen were unable to reassemble them and they remained packed away.

A Second Attempt:

In the 1740's Russia's then Empress, Elizabeth, asked for the amber to be used in the redecoration of a room in St. Petersburg's Winter Palace. The architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, faced a problem: the Amber panels had been carefully designed to fit in a much smaller room than the one he was now working on. His solution was the addition of long mirrors and special 'fake' panels painted to look like amber but, just as before, circumstances changed under a new ruler: Catherine the Great.

Tsarskoje Selo:

In 1755 Catherine ordered the amber moved to her summer residence at Tsarskoje Selo. The new location was again larger than the original room in Berlin, and a new generation of craftsmen worked for a further fifteen years on a chamber fit for their Empress, while others collected small amber items to be placed in the room as a stunning collection. Finally, in 1770, the Amber Room assumed the completed state that was to make it so famous, an 'eight wonder of the world'.

The Amber Room:

The original amber panels and the large wall-mounted mirrors were again used, but the 'fake' amber sections were replaced with real amber ones. The basic floor-to-ceiling structure was eight sets of three vertically stacked panels separated by the long framed mirrors. Central positions were occupied by four amber framed mosaics of semiprecious stones; made in Florence using their local techniques, they related to the five senses. In addition, the dates 1709 and 1760 were added in amber.

The Room Vanishes:

Aside from maintenance work in 1833, 1865 and the 1890's, the room remained unchanged until World War 2. Then, as Russian forces retreated from quickly approaching Nazi soldiers in 1941, the amber room was covered in a makeshift camouflage of paper and gauze. However, the Germans used Tsarskoje Selo as a base, found the room and dismantled it. Between 1941 and 1943 the whole room, supposedly packed in 27 crates, traveled to Königsberg, where it was put on public display. And then...

The Mystery:

Officially, and most plausibly, the Amber Room was destroyed in 1944 during an allied air-raid on its storage place: Königsberg Castle. But, while historians, treasure-hunters and mystery addicts are confident the room was in Königsberg during 1943, they're not so sure about the destruction. People have claimed the amber was hidden by the SS in a silver mine or a lagoon, that the shipment was sunk or blown up, even that over-zealous Red Army soldiers smashed it themselves.

Fragments:

The mystery thrived post-war, helped by the lack of remains and the treasure's worth (over $150 million). Given the delicate care amber panels needs to survive, they're unlikely to have lasted sixty years in a damp secret location but, in 1997, German Police caught the son of a Nazi officer – one of the officers who accompanied the crates to Königsberg - trying to sell part of one of the mosaics. No one knew where the piece had actually come from, and the mystery was reborn.

Reconstruction: The New Amber Room:

A full-scale reconstruction of the Amber Room began in the 1980's, with modern Russian craftsmen using the same workshops in Tsarskoje Selo as their predecessors. Techniques didn't have to just be re-learnt, but re-perfected, and the main source materials were photographs and staff memories. Although the Communist government withdrew funding in the 1990's donations, including a massive one from German company Ruhrgas, have kept the work alive. Many commentators see the Amber Room's history as symbolic of Russo-German relations.

Further Reading:
• The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark
There are a lot of novels about the Amber Room, but this is the latest academic book to forward a solution.

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