The Amber Room

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Visitors look at the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg, Russia, as the restored chamber was presented to reporters. (AP Photo/ Dmitry Lovetsky)
Visitors look at the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg, Russia, as the restored chamber was presented to reporters. (AP Photo/ Dmitry Lovetsky)

TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen)

Once considered “the eighth wonder of the world,” the Amber Room was a treasure of kings and architectural marvel before being stolen by Nazis and lost to history. So…what happened? It all depends on who you ask.
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 
Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, you have seen the original Jurassic Park movie, right?

Amory Sivertson: Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth!

Ben: Clever girl. So, Amory, you obviously remember the part of the move where theres this little educational video for visitor to Jurassic Park explaining how dinosaurs get brought back to life in modern times using DNA from ancient mosquito blood.

Amory: Ah yes, a movie within the movie, very meta.

Jurassic Park instructional video: Sometimes after biting a dinosaur the mosquito would land on the branch of a tree and get stuck in the sap. After a long time the tree sap would get hard and become fossilized just like a dinosaur bone, preserving the mosquito inside.

Amory: That’s how you get amber, and a whole adventure park full of deadly-ass dinos.

Ben: Heck yeah. Also, Jurassic Park was my first understanding of the idea that fossilized tree sap, a.k.a. amber, is rare, and valuable. But I had no idea that it was this valuable.

Adrian Levy: Amber in the bank was like gold in the bank.

Amory: This is Adrian Levy, who is not talking about the Jurassic Period. He’s talking about 18th century Europe. Levy is kind of like a journalist’s version of Indiana Jones.

Adrian: And I live in London, although I work around the world as an investigative journalist and producer gathering photographs and documents in many different countries so I can put together large scale historic investigations, which are much like broken plates where you try and piece bits together to make the whole.

Ben: I already like this guy. I like how serious he is about his work too. Because we’re about to ask Adrian to tell the story of one of the greatest unsolved art mysteries of all time.

Amory: Supposedly unsolved art mysteries.

Ben: It’s a mystery that begins with an artistic feat so massive and innovative it took up an entire room of a palace.

Amory: In fact, it was the room. A room of amber. It’s legendary. And it’s missing.

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson.

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson, and you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Ben: The show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.

Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.

Ben: Today’s Episode…

Ben and Amory: The Amber Room

Amory: So if you’re into art history, you’ve probably heard about the Amber Room. But we heard about it through Reddit. It’s one of those stories that gets posted over and over, it’s an unresolved mystery, a Today I Learned.

Ben: And to fully explain why it is perennially posted, I think we should stay with this amber conversation for a minute. Also, we should talk about Prussia, which is like one of those things that, as a dumb American, I have very little point of reference for, but Prussia gets started in the 1500s. It is this kingdom and it eventually becomes the German Empire. It includes, depending on when you’re taking a snapshot, a whole chunk of Poland plus what is now Germany alsa a chunk of Denmark. Look, like a lot of European history from the Middle Ages and the early modern period, it is complicated.

Amory: But Prussia is also a so-called great power. Meaning it has global influence. And that influence comes not just from military might. But also from great wealth. Adrian Levy says, literally tons of this wealth was amber wealth.

Adrian: It was a representation of Prussian might. It could be used and bartered for any number of monarchical missions that needed to be run so...

Ben: Wow I had no idea that amber was like a form of cash, I guess.

Adrian: Yeah I think it would be fair to say that the wealth of that state was underpinned by the royal monopoly of amber, which both demonstrated military might but also shrewdness in that you know just as with gold it's fungible, easy to trade, limited in supply and its value only ever rose.

Amory: Part of this value comes from scarcity, but also from mythology.

Adrian: Amber had mystique in these cultures, in the Prussian culture especially, because of its ability to capture the past. There was also a rumor about it having a kind of charge around it, an electrostatic quality.

Ben: Alright, I feel like I’m in a crystal shop in 2019.

Amory: You’re not, but definitely a similar vibe. Amber, special properties.

Ben: Maybe. So, how’d these Prussians get their piles and piles of amber? Piles and piles of ancient forest bits, under water.

Adrian: There literally were amber fishermen wading into the rough seas of the Baltic on huge lines to prevent them drowning and scooping off a wintery sea, amber, that had flaked off the seabed and risen to the surface. And so extraordinarily difficult was it to gain large quantities that anyone who possessed such large quantities themselves became powerful. It's like a kind of De Beers idea with diamonds. It's creating a cartel around an extremely precious commodity.

Amory: This mystique, of course, is not lost on the first King of Prussia, Frederick the First. Frederick is this decorated military leader who rises to lead this new global power. And global powers have to demonstrate how powerful they are. Which is how we get to an entire room of a Prussian palace constructed out of amber. This gemstone that shows up in itty bitty little pieces at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. That’s the plan, at least.

Adrian: And the conception of it was that if you stepped into a room made of this substance that had never been used architecturally before and only on brooches or in jewelry other kinds of jewelry, that the effect would be like stepping into a time machine, a room plastered with an ancient sap suspended in which are insects and parts of leaves and bone that go back many millions of years. So really extraordinary utilization of this material.

Ben: I love this idea. Like, I think of time machines maybe more than the average person. But I always think of them as fancy technological feats. I never think of a time machine as a room constructed of gemstones with organic matter frozen inside of them for thousands of years. What a beautiful thought.

Amory: A beautiful thought, and also a tall order. It’s gonna take years to build this one room. And not just because of the detailed work required. But because Frederick’s basically asking for this really unique collaboration of architects, sculptors, jewelers and even some chemists to build this thing.

Adrian: It required enormous amounts of pooling of minds to work out how to make amber not brittle, how to make it malleable, how to shape it into panels and frames and then suspend it behind gold leaf so that it would twinkle by candlelight.

Amory: The room starts being planned at the end of the 1690s, and it’s not really finished until over a decade later, in 1711. And then it’s installed in the Berlin City Palace, which is the beginning of things getting weird for this enormous piece of artwork. Pretty quickly after it’s installed, the guy who ordered the thing in the first place, Frederick, dies. Also, the lead sculptor, Andreas Schluter, he has a bit of a rough patch. He builds a big tower on a bunch of sand and the tower collapses and his career is over. He’s ruined.

Ben: It do be like that sometimes.

Amory: It do.

Ben: Next? King of Prussia Frederick the First’s successor, Frederick William, not a big culture guy. He’s like the 18th century version of a super jock. He’s called the soldier king. He does not care for this glowing baroque time machine made out of amber. Unless we’re talking dollar signs, technically Reichsthaler signs, but you know what I mean.

Amory: But the Amber Room is more than just tons of gemstones with suspended organic matter in them, backed by gold leaf, and melted into wall panels. To visitors who come through the palace in Berlin, it’s jaw-dropping. It gets called “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” It’s coveted by the rich and powerful. Including Peter the Great, of Russia. So Frederick William, who’s trying to secure a pact with Peter the Great, he says, “You like it? Take it!”

Adrian: It was put into an enormous number of crates, and given the poor transportation that was available at the time, it was shipped by sledge cart and, you know, dragged, if you like, all the way from Prussia to Russia.

Ben: Totally normal thing to do. Take an entire palace room, jewel encrusted, and send it to Russia, as a gift. Freaking rich people, man. I bet they weren’t the ones dragging those sleds through Europe.

Amory: Seriously. And this is the beginning of an epic saga that’s really the reason why we’re still talking about the Amber Room today. This room is on a journey worthy of a real deal time machine. A journey that will cover several locations, several tear downs and rebuilds, and several transports over several hundred years.

Adrian: If anything was made and never to be transported it probably was the Amber Room. I mean this substance is brittle. It requires being kept at constant temperatures in order for its maturing hue, its colors to be maintained, the room must not be too cold or too hot. And I certainly think we came across one account that talked about the reaction of a courtier when they open the chest and there were many many many smashed pieces.

Ben: Over its hundreds of years of existence The Amber Room’s whereabouts are followed by the people who covet it because it’s beautiful, the people who want to discover its final resting place when it gets lost. And also people who want to use it for political gain. Why is the Amber Room so popular?

Adrian:“World's most valuable missing treasure.” So let's start with that. That headline’s pretty good. But the pivotal moments of the story absolutely are in the East. And they are in areas where information control is absolute, areas where it's extremely hard as a investigator or scholar to gain access to primary sources and so what you have instead is a kind of whispering campaign based on folklore.

Amory:  Adrian talks about this a lot — the idea that the barriers to primary source accounts of The Amber Room have allowed it to become even more legendary than it might have otherwise. And he should know, because Adrian’s done maybe the deepest dive on The Amber Room, in the book The Amber Room: Fate Of The World’s Greatest Lost Treasure. Written by him and his coauthor and working partner, Cathy Scott Clark. Who he says totally would have also talked to us…

Ben: Except she was filming with a celebrated award-winning documentarian. Whatever Cathy. Seriously, though, we are relying heavily on Cathy and Adrian’s work here. They did hundreds of interviews and have chased The Amber Room to the ends of the earth, looking for a work of art with a worth that some estimates put at about half a billion dollars.

Amory: But back to the 1700s, where the Amber Room’s journey was just getting started. After getting it as a gift, and having it dragged across Europe on a bunch of sledges, Peter the Great forgot about it. Freaking rich people, man. But it was eventually reinstalled decades later in a palace near what is now called St. Petersburg.

Ben: Along with the challenge of handling with care while transporting via sledge, we have to remember that it’s not that easy to just uninstall one palace room’s worth of decadent panels and reinstall it in a totally different palace. It’s not like these palaces are standardized. So Amber Room 2.0 gets a bunch of additional amber thrown in, bringing it close to six tons of amber. Which really complicates matters in a way.

Amory: But nonetheless, the Amber Room is still adored by a number of curators who care for this incredibly fragile, beautiful, now almost 600 square foot work of art. For a while. Until, Adrian says, the Amber room finds itself at the center of a struggle that will have it moving again.

Ben: A lot of Adrian’s work, is based around conflict and war. And the Amber Room’s story is no different. Hundreds of years after it was brought to Russia, the room moves again, because of World War Two. And the incursion of Nazis into Russia. Also the leadership of Russia at the time well, they had bigger fish to fry than the Amber Room. Lotta Problems.

Amory: At least 99 problems and the Amber Room ain’t one. At least not one they’re worried about. There’s a fight for survival happening here.

Ben: But the curators, the people who know and love the value of this great wonder, caring about this stuff, it’s their work.

Adrian: And it became obvious to them, as Nazi Germany began to rub up against the Soviet Union, that something would need to be done to protect these palaces because there were no official directives that were coming in. And interestingly, as the threat rises of a Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, they, the curators are faced with exactly the same problem that everybody is being faced with through history with the Amber Room, which is how to dismantle the greatest jigsaw in the world and how to reassemble it and how to look after it once it's dismantled.

Amory: Here we go again. Guys, stop taking it apart!

Ben: Seriously, but the good news of course, is that these Russian amber-loving curators come up with a better plan. They’re going to hide it.

Amory: Does it work?

Ben: More on that in a minute.

[Sponsor break]

Amory: So we left off in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, which is under siege by the Nazis. This siege is devastating. Starvation is everywhere. There’s no heat. This siege which will last for years, it’s eventually classified as a genocide. And early on, the curators in charge of the Amber Room. They think they’re going to move it.

Adrian: And we know from a personal account kept by the lead curator, a young man called Kuchumov, that they tried the most basic things. Getting a knife or a screwdriver and placing it underneath a corner of the amber and trying to pry it off the backing board. And we also know, from his account, that immediately he did that, of course, the amber shattered.

Ben: Oh God.

Adrian: The rooms there were freezing cold.

Ben: It makes any curator freak out I would imagine reading some descriptions of this.

Adrian: Yeah totally and I think you can wind back a stage and think that you know the approach of placing that butter knife under the corner of the amber in itself was fraught. But also the city of Leningrad was starving and there was not enough you know cash to feed people, let alone heat a room. You can imagine the condition of the room was appalling.

Amory: Throw into this situation a revelation of sorts. Before the war, a bunch of German dignitaries visited the Amber Room. And the Russians realized that basically these dignitaries were making a list of the stuff that they were going to take when they took over. The Russians needed to protect this thing.

Adrian: The clock was ticking. Now they know that the price will be their heads if they cannot succeed in spiriting away these treasures to keep them safe from the Nazis. So they come up with a cunning ruse, which is to make another room on top of the room. And Kuchumov’s idea is to take wadding, a kind of wadding made from felt or sheep's skin, and put that up against the extraordinary brittle Amber Room, and then cover the room in rolls of wallpaper that had been left behind from renovations years ago.

Ben: Woahhh. So build a fake room inside the Amber Room to cover it up and hide it.

Adrian: Yeah absolutely. And I think you know given the fact that they had no idea how to solve the jigsaw puzzle this was a shrewd move.

Ben: It’s a gambit. But it’s necessary. Because eventually the Nazis get to the palace.

Adrian: And they knew exactly where to come. So when they were confronted by the room within the room, I'm sure initially they were nonplussed by what they saw. But really within a matter of hours someone had taken a bayonet to that padding, realized that the Amber Room was behind it, and used a lot more brute force than Kuchumov, the Russian curator, was prepared to, strip the Amber Room into boxes and then transported it in a quite lengthy route to what was then called Königsberg  on in the Baltic coast.

Ben: The Baltic Coast. Close to the waters from whence the amber was fished in the first place. Full circle, in a way. And a feather in the hat for a brutal German regime that was infamous for stealing the world’s greatest works of art to dubious ends.

Amory: So the Amber Room was now beneath a castle in German territory. Hidden from the world. Ironically enough, the same fortress where the two Fredericks at the beginning of our story — the Prussian leader who brought it into the world, and the one who sold it to Russia for a military pact — were crowned kings. The Amber Room was back home in a way, even if the reasons were despicable and the storage didn’t respect its true glory.

Ben: But near the end of the war, the castle is destroyed. Bombed by the allied forces, shelled by the Russians. The castle is burnt to a crisp, a ruined skeleton looking something, maybe like a wall panel of the Amber room itself, with all of the brittle Amber shattered and blown out. And it may be that this is what happened to the room too. After all, it was fragile. And for a freaking palace room to be deconstructed and reconstructed over and over like a jigsaw puzzle that gets a little more beat up every time it’s used, the Amber Room had a good run. But there wasn’t evidence of this destruction. People say there just wasn’t any shattered amber in the castle ruins.

Amory: This is really where the trail of the Amber Room goes cold. Or maybe just gets confused. Like a bunch of different potential timelines. Because despite the destruction of the castle, a lot of the foundations, the deep basements, of the structure where the Amber Room supposedly was stored, survived. Which is the beginning of a gazillion theories about the Amber Room surviving. Stories start popping up. Adrian’s heard and followed them all.

Adrian: Such was its enormous value there's some kind of James Bond-esque villain or villainous empire that's kept it on display in an underground cave, maybe it's in North Korea, submerged in a flooded mine between Czechoslovakia and Germany. You know there are endless stories, so some of them have an internal logic to them but nearly all of them defy the primary material that is available.

Amory: Adrian points to the fascination with the Amber Room as a real problem. Because along with this explosion of potential true timelines for what happens to it after the war, come an explosion of people trying to capitalize on the mystery. Like, actual treasure hunters. Art nerds. People who really want to recover this thing. So we called an art nerd, who is trying to recover things. Quite busy trying to recover things in fact.

Art Nerd: You got me now you can ask away.

Ben: This is Christopher A. Marinello. He’s a lawyer and the CEO of Art Recovery International.

Christopher A. Marinello: Our specialty at Art Recovery International is recovering stolen and looted works of art.

Ben: Chris uses databases, contacts in the art world, and a boatload of lawyer know how, also a general art history knowledge to chase things down that have been lost. Half of his work is Pro Bono. Because, he says, he wants to help museums, churches and even governments get art back.

Chris: Most people think that law enforcement is up to the task of recovering all the stolen artwork in the world. It’s simply not true. Law enforcement is underpaid, understaffed, and that’s why organizations exist like Art Recovery International.

Amory: Chris has a specialty. Recovering artwork stolen by the Nazis.

Chris: It's painful to the families of victims of Nazi looting. I mean the art world is very small, everyone knows each other and people don't want to be known as litigious. So our specialty is trying to come up with a creative strategy to avoid the court system.

Ben: Chris also gets a lot of creative tips.

Chris: I'm staring at on my screen at a 28-page document that somebody sent me from Serbia today, of artwork that they swear is available, everything from DaVincis to Basquiats. And it's a collection of the most horrific fakes you've ever seen.

Amory: So we asked him has he ever heard of the Amber Room?

Chris: I get approached by a lot of people about the Amber Room. Usually it's people who claim they know where it is and are looking for a finder's fee from me or from someone else. You know whenever I ask for a shred, a shred, of evidence, nobody is able to come up with anything.

Ben: Chris says he’s never seen a lead. Not one that fully convinced him. He said, if someone knew something, they would have come forward by now.

Amory: There was one thing that happened. A break in the case, so to speak. In 1997 these amber mosaics are discovered from the room. It was a huge news story at the time. They were in the possession of a German soldier’s family. But Adrian says this trail doesn’t go anywhere, because the pieces are actually from when the room was disassembled in St. Petersburg. So they won’t help people find the location of the rest.

Ben: In a way this proves one of the theories, that in the chaos of the war, some of the German soldiers might have made off with pieces of the Amber Room. But unfortunately, Adrian, our real deal expert, he’s not an optimist. Like, at all.

Adrian: And I think I'm the wrong person to go through the theories because I'm kind of feeling like the guy who killed Santa.

Ben: Are there any crazy theories of its continued existence that resonate with you? Do any of these give you a tiny glimmer, that could be reflected in amber, of hope?

Adrian: All the theories for me are crazy. In none of them is a glimmer.

Amory: Ohhh.

Ben: Ugh. Adrian, you’re killing me!

Amory: Santa Claus is dead.

Adrian: You know I'd love to be proved wrong. I would. I'm not a hard, I've not got a hard heart. You know I'd like someone to find it, to prove that I'm wrong. But at the moment the primary history is not tilting in that direction.

Amory: At least he gave us, at the moment, and not tilting in that direction.

Ben: True. And also, this is actually where I think the Amber Room’s story gets even more interesting. Over and over the Amber Room and who possesses it is a demonstration of might. The whole history of this eighth wonder of the world is tangled up in hundreds of years of these power struggles. According to Adrian, the continuation of the mystery actually has a lot to do with continuing power struggles after World War 2 ends.

Adrian: I think the end of 1945 is pretty much one of the first visits by a curator assigned by KGB. And there's a parallel inquiry that's made then by the Stasi, who as you know the East German secret police. And so you have two masters of untruths, masters of propaganda, who become involved. But also two ruthless organizations. And within those organizations you also have cultural truth-tellers, curators who themselves would like to get to the bottom of the story. And you know, if that truth does not match the political needs then one sees what happens to these truth-tellers.

Amory: And so starts an era where people trying to get to the truth of the Amber Room’s fate, meet unfortunate fates of their own. A story we know because again, these organizations, known for being dubious for democracy, are actually pretty great when it comes to bureaucracy, documenting everything.

Adrian: And in the first of these tragic documents that came to light we see that the KGB and the Ministry of Culture had a joint mission. The mission sent an extremely capable investigator and archaeologist who'd been working in Moscow. He filed a report back to Moscow. His conclusions were that it was likely the Amber Room was destroyed. Immediately he submits that report and that report passes its way up towards Moscow, reaching the inner circles of governments. He is exiled, is never forgiven for coming up with the wrong answer to the question of where is now an object that is elevated by the KGB as Russia's greatest ever treasure, even though it's a Prussian treasure.

Ben: You know how people talk about how many instances of something equals a trend? There are enough examples of bad things happening to people around the Amber Room that there is talk of a curse. General Gusev, Russian intelligence officer talks about it to a journalist? Killed in a car crash. A former German soldier, George Stein, who was hunting for the artwork, also dies unexpectedly in a Bavarian forest.

Amory: These things happened years ago. But obsession with the Amber Room, and really strange political theater around it, continues today. With, for instance, the current leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin and his 11-million dollar reconstruction of the Amber Room. Which, appropriately, also took over a decade to finish, 25 years actually.

Adrian: You know he made great play of the fact that you know this wonder, this new wonder, had been resurrected as a memorial to the loss, Russia's loss to Germany. And one of the key funders of the Amber Room and of the launch party was a German gas company that was looking for egress into Russian business.

Ben: The idea of opulence and excess being associated with wheeling and dealing powerful and potentially corrupt heads of state is familiar, right?

Adrian: The room itself is a massively gaudy, almost plasticized, nouveau riche, footballer's wife nightmare. It’s just awful, really.

[Ben and Amory laugh]

Ben: Wow it’s amazing how similar Putin and Trump are when you really think about it.

Adrian: Well you know that room would be perfect in Mar-a-Lago.

Ben: OK, take issue with this comparison if you want, but just for the record. You know those pictures of President Trump’s New York City penthouse?

Amory: You know with the gold toilet and all the gold leaf everywhere, that’s supposed to evoke the style of the Palace of Versailles?

Ben: It’s all kind of got similar vibes.

Amory: Digs on the Nouveau Riche aside, The Amber Room’s legacy might have important lessons about negotiation between world powers.

Ben: So, will the Amber Room ever be found? Adrian says, no way. It was almost definitely blown to smithereens in Königsberg castle. But it’s still being used, not just for negotiation, For manipulation.

Adrian: So whenever the Germans ever complains, the Russians would point to the Amber Room. When anyone talks about loss they would use the Amber Room as the symbol of loss, cultural loss, financial loss, the rape and pillage of palaces and cities. And it became a resonant propagandistic tool. And so what's not to love in this, you know it has a bit for everybody I think. If you have a passion for history and a passion for seeing the way in which things become totems and those totems are then elevated in order to extract meaning, then it's it's endlessly informing about how we live, the times we live, and the way in which our governments use these totems for their own means, whether it be the Soviets or the Stasi.

Amory: So maybe the Amber Room really is a time machine of sorts, making sure we remember history.

Ben: And you don’t have to have seen Jurassic Park to know that if you don’t remember history you’re doomed to... be torn to shreds by a gaggle of raptors.

[Amory and Ben make Raptor noises.]


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