A Polish historian recently announced he believes he’s found The Amber Room (6-minute National Geographic video) hidden inside an abandoned Nazi Bunker. The Amber Room was a gift from Germany to Tsar Peter the Great, then stolen—or “repatriated,” as some would argue—in 1941 and subsequently lost in the waning days of WWII. Among the world’s most valuable lost works of art, if it could be found, it would be valued today at more than $500 million.
The Amber Room comprises panels of some 13,000 pounds of thin amber backed with gold leaf and mirrors and encrusted with carved amber and precious stones. It took more than a decade to create. The panels lined over 600 square feet of wall space in a room in Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (the Tsar’s Village) near St. Petersburg. Many people considered Tsarskoye Selo the Russian equivalent of Versailles, and Tsar Nicholas II and his family lived there until forced into exile (and eventual execution) in August 1917 during the Russian Revolution.
On the eve of the Nazi invasions, Soviet officials tried to remove the precious amber panels, and when they were unsuccessful, attempted to mask them with nondescript wallpaper. The German military command occupied the palace during the War and immediately discovered the ruse. The Nazis rapidly disassembled the room (reportedly within 36 hours) and removed the panels to Königsberg, where they were put on display. In the final year of the war, Hitler ordered that looted art to be taken to a more secure location, but whether The Amber Room survived has been a matter of hope and conjecture for more than 70 years.
Many theories have been put forward regarding the fate of these panels, including that they were destroyed in wartime bombing, that they were hidden in the Königsberg castle’s basement. The palace was finally demolished under orders from Leonid Brezhnev in 1968, 23 years after Königsberg became the Soviet Union town of Kaliningrad. That act would make the panels, if they had survived in castle’s sub-regions, irretrievable. Time after time, individuals have claimed to know the Amber Room’s hidden location, but these claims have always been false.
Now Bartlomiej Plebanczyk, head curator at Poland’s Namerki Museum, has used ground-penetrating radar to find a previously undiscovered room within a large complex of undamaged bunkers and tunnels in the Masurian Lake District in northeastern Poland. The complex was extraordinarily well defended (with its own Panzer division) and considered a secure place for looted treasure. Now Plebanczyk awaits permission to drill into the bunker to insert a camera to check what is there.
After so many failed attempts to find the Amber Room, in 1979, the Soviets began an effort to recreate it based on photographs and drawings, and a touring group of workmen brought the story of room and its reconstruction to U.S. museum-goers (I saw this exhibit and the men working on the amber mosaics somewhere). The recreated room is now housed in Russia’s Catherine Palace.
You’ll recall that reclaiming looted art was a serious and ongoing endeavor after World War II, with the notable efforts of “The Monuments Men” (movie review) and continues up to today. Last year’s movie, The Woman in Gold, dramatized the heroic legal struggle to reclaim a single Gustav Klimt painting, now on permanent display at the Neue Gallery in Manhattan.