The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg was known as the Eighth Wonder of the World before it was dismantled and shipped off in crates by German troops during World War II.
Designed by the German Baroque sculptor Andreas Schlueter and crafted by Russian and German workers in Prussia, its first home was Berlin’s royal palace, where Peter the Great of Russia exclaimed in wonder at it. King Friedrich Wilhelm I, courting Russia’s help in defending Prussia from the Swedes, gave the amber panels to the czar, who first installed them in the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg in 1717.
In 1755, the Amber Room moved to the Summer Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. There it stayed until June 1941, when the invading German army packed it up and sent it west.
Erich Koch, the regional Nazi chief in East Prussia, emerged victorious in the ensuing tussle among leading Nazi art looters for the booty, and ordered it to be transported to Koenigsberg, now Kaliningrad. It was put on temporary display in the royal palace. After suffering superficial damage in a fire in 1944, the panels were packed into boxes once more.
From 1945 onwards, history gives way to myths and conspiracy theories, lies and educated guesses, half-memories and wild rumors. The German historian Mario Morgner investigated the files of the Stasi, the East German spy agency, to delve into its own secret quest for the Amber Room.
Codenamed “Pushkin,” the Stasi operation cost millions of marks, spanned decades and turned up little more than a pair of gumboots and a rusty weapon.
Morgner has put his findings in a book, “Geheimsache Bernsteinzimmer,” (Secret File Amber Room), published by Tauchaer Verlag and priced 9.95 euros ($13.25).
He spoke in a phone interview from Rodewisch, a village south of Leipzig near the Czech border and the Ore Mountains.
Hickley: Why was the Stasi so convinced that the Amber Room survived and could be found?
Morgner: The Stasi was convinced right until 1989 that it still existed and conducted an extensive search. There were two alternative theories -- one was that it left Koenigsberg with Erich Koch’s private art collection, the other was that it was hidden in the mountains of East Prussia. There was no evidence to support either theory; it was just speculation.
Hickley: That Stasi search was thorough and expensive, according to your book. Why was East Germany so determined to find the Amber Room?
Morgner: It would have been a political triumph for East Germany. From a propaganda point of view, it would have helped to promote its self-image as the better Germany. It was a matter for the state, whereas in the west, only private treasure seekers took up the search.
Hickley: Your book tracks five men the Stasi thought may have known something about the Amber Room, including one who was clearly a conman and a liar.
Morgner: Yes, Manfred Keiluweit is to me the most fascinating character in the story. He came up with information no one else had, yet it all seemed lacking in credibility on closer inspection.
Hickley: Did the Stasi actually conduct secret excavations for the treasure as well as questioning people?
Morgner: Oh, yes. There were about 120 locations that were opened up -- old mines, depots, etc., mainly in the Ore Mountains. Nothing much was found except for old rubber boots and rusting weapons. No trace of the Amber Room.
Hickley: What do you think happened to it?
Morgner: I think it stayed where it was -- in Koenigsberg, most likely, or perhaps in eastern Prussia.
Hickley: After 65 years, would there be anything left?
Morgner: It would probably be a huge 3-D puzzle, interesting for art historians to look at to see the craftsmanship, but probably impossible to put back together again. The amber itself is indestructible. It can burn and it darkens with time, but it doesn’t decay.
Hickley: Is it possible that someone knew where it was all along, and sold it piece by piece? Could women around the world unknowingly be wearing jewelry made of the Amber Room?
Morgner: In the 1950s and 1960s, the Stasi talked to lots of East German jewelry makers and sellers to find out whether large quantities of amber had appeared on the market. That proved not to be the case.
Hickley: Your book contains tips for treasure seekers -- what they should examine more closely, what may be red herrings. Are there still so many people looking for the Amber Room?
Morgner: There are treasure seekers all over Germany. Some groups work more intensively, others more part-time. They stretch from Saxony over to Bavaria, where there are a couple of groups who work in secret, and all the way down to Austria.
Yet no one so far has been able to explain, with evidence, how the Amber Room would have come to this region -- no documents have yet come to light. Of course, there may be some still hidden away in an archive.
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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