The Big Question: What was the Amber Room, and has it really been discovered at last?
Thursday 21 February 2008
Why are we asking this now?
Because the hunt for the fabled Amber Room, regarded as one of Russia's truly great art treasures, could be over. The Amber Room, so-called for its ornate amber panels, was kept in Russia for more than 200 years, before it was looted by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Its treasures and amber panels were spirited away to Germany, but the exact location of it was lost in the chaos that engulfed Germany at the end of the war. The mystery of its resting place has fuelled 50 years of hunting, debating and conspiracy theorising. But despite the large following of hunters, it had seemed that not even Indiana Jones could lay its mystery to rest. Until now.
A group of German treasure hunters now claims to have located the Amber Room in an underground cavern near Germany's border with the Czech Republic. If the claim turns out to be true, it could put an end to one of the greatest treasure hunts of modern history.
What is the Amber Room?
The Amber Room was an ornately decorated chamber created by Prussian and Russian craftsmen in the 18th century. The intricacy and detail of the design have led some to describe it as the eighth wonder of the world.
It was handed to the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, by the Prussian King, Frederick Wilhelm I, in 1716. It was then kept in Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, St Petersburg, until the palace was over-run by the Nazis in 1941. They then packed the contents of the Amber Room into 27 crates before destroying the palace and taking the Amber Room to the German city of Königsberg, near the Baltic Sea. That is where it was last seen in 1945.
Ever since, treasure hunters across Europe have dedicated their lives to finding it, while researchers have been trying to work out exactly what happened to the precious decorations.
How was the latest claim discovered?
The latest claim to have solved the riddle has come from a group of German hopefuls, who say they have discovered two tonnes of Nazi gold in an underground man-made cavern near the village of Deutschneudorf, on Germany's border with the Czech Republic. The team believes the material in the chamber to be gold after conducting an electromagnetic test. They are now excavating the area.
One of the group, the 53-year-old mayor of Deutschneudorf, Heinz-Peter Haustein, has been searching for the Amber Room in the region for 10 years, spending tens of thousands of euros in the process. He claims the area is home to a maze of underground Nazi storage rooms. He also believes the Nazis hid valuable items there at the end of the war.
When Christian Hanisch came across the co-ordinates of the cavern while looking through some documents left by his father, a Luftwaffe signaller, he and Mr Haustein became convinced they were on to a winner.
Is it the real thing?
We won't know for weeks yet, as the digging site first has to be made safe before the underground cavern can be reached. In true treasure-hunt style, the site will also be checked for booby traps. But Mr Haustein is confident. He says he is "well over 90 per cent sure" the find really is the genuine Amber Room.
But there are plenty of followers of the Amber Room tale who will have heard that before. Many have claimed to have found the treasure over the past 50 years and, so far, all have proved to be false alarms. There have been some genuine finds, though. One of the panels from the Amber Room was found by German police in 1997.
What are the most popular theories on the Amber Room?
There are many theories detailing exactly what became of the Amber Room. Needless to say, many don't believe the most straightforward explanations. One has it that it was destroyed when the British bombed Königsberg. Another suggests it was burnt during a fire at Königsberg Castle. The castle was thought to be housing parts of the Amber Room at the time. Some believe that it was lost at sea when a German boat carrying them was torpedoed. Another suggests that Russian soldiers burnt it. If all the past claims are to be believed, the Amber Room has turned up periodically in Germany, and also in Lithuania.
A couple of British investigative journalists took up the mystery in recent times, even consulting Russian archives. They released their finding s in a book in 2004. Their conclusion? That the room had been destroyed in the Königsberg Castle fire, just before the city was taken by Soviet forces.
What are the wilder theories?
Just like any other mystery, the story of the Amber Room has attracted some pretty dubious theories on its disappearance. Even Mr Haustein's idea that the Nazis had time for a secret dumping mission at a time when their resources were stretched to their limits seems far-fetched. But the speculation doesn't stop there.
Some even say that the search for the Amber Room is cursed. One story has it that an investigator who claimed to have uncovered a radio message detailing the fate of the Amber Room was then found dead, apparently struck down by the curse.
But the wildest theory has to be that upon Hitler's death, his body was never burnt, but was buried with the Amber Room. If that's true, the latest team could be in for a grim discovery when they reach their target.
Isn't there an Amber Room in Russia?
Anyone who has visited Tsarskoye Selo, near St Petersburg, will know that the Amber Room seems to be fine and well, and on display in the partially restored Catherine Palace. But don't be fooled – it is an exact replica, painstakingly recreated to coincide with the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg in 2003. The replica took more than 20 years and six tonnes of amber to complete, and needed a large donation from a German company in 1999 to finish. It was such a proud occasion that Vladimir Putin and the then German chancellor Gerhard Schröder attended its unveiling.
Will this discovery end the debate?
Don't bet on it. So much attention has been focused on the mystery of the Amber Room that unless water-tight proof is provided, there are plenty of people willing to keep on looking.
Even Mr Haustein is hedging his bets. He says that if his discovery turns out not to be the genuine Amber Room, it should provide clues about where to look next. And there are lots of places to look, as the region on the German and Czech border is criss-crossed with old copper, tin and silver mines. Better start digging.
Could the Amber Room still be around somewhere, waiting to be discovered?
* A genuine panel was found in 1997, suggesting that at least a few other pieces might still be around
* The latest discovery is based on co-ordinates and high-tech tests. There's something down there
* The region is full of underground caverns, which could have been used as storage facilities by the Nazis
* Anyone who has spent a fortune and a decade searching for something has a vested interest in claiming to have succeeded
* A comprehensive study of the fate of the Amber Room concluded it had been burnt in a fire during the Second World War
* With all those people looking for it, surely it would have been found by now if it really was still around?
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