Amber Room: 'GMA's' First Stop on Mystery Tour

It was a chamber fit for a queen. A fairy tale of a room, crafted almost entirely of six tons of glowing, translucent amber.

This lavish chamber, estimated to be worth $150 million today, was born from the hedonistic desire of Prussian King Frederic the First, for a room made completely of amber.

In the 300 years since Frederic built the Amber Room for his home at Charlottenburg Palace, it has dazzled kings and queens, trading hands between Russian and Prussian rulers.

During World War II, the Amber Room, dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," was looted by the Nazis. Today, the fate of the original Amber Room remains one of Europe's great mysteries.

Checkered Past

Never fully completed, the room's honeyed panels were sent to Russian Czar Peter the Great as a gift in 1716. The Amber Room soon became a gem inside the Catherine Palace, that rivaled Versailles.

The gesture sealed the Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden, and over the centuries, it continued to be transferred back and forth, as a symbol of friendship between the two empires.

During World War II, Germany's Third Reich decided that the German-made Amber Room should be brought back to Germany, as a symbol of German greatness.

"It was of supreme importance to repatriate this gift, or rescue it from a subculture they viewed [as] Russia," explained Robert Alexander, author of "The Romanov Bride."

As the Germans approached, the terrified Russian curators were unable to dismantle or hide the Amber Room. The Nazis soon found it, returned it to Germany, and put it on proud display at Konigsberg Castle.

As the tide of war turned, and the Germans started losing ground, they grew worried about the Amber Room's safety, and boxed it up. Except for a few traces, no one has seen it since.

Unsolved Mystery

Before he died, the museum director who looked after the Amber Room during the war assured the people of Berlin that the room had survived heavy allied bombings, but gave no further clues.

The 65-year obsession with solving this mystery and finding the remains, has pulled in everyone from billionaire art lovers to the Stasi (East Germany's former secret police) to the KGB (the old Soviet Union's security force).

Buried?

One conspiracy theory suggests that it is still buried somewhere beneath the castle.

"How would they know the Amber Room was down there, how would they know its value? They were just coming in to destroy the fascist army," said Alexander, who suggests that answer could be plausible.

Burned?

Others say the Amber Room probably simply burned as the Red Army battled back against the Nazis. Skeptics say the whole city would have smelled the stench of burning amber, though.

Sunk?

Some historians say that the boxes were put on a German cruiseliner, which was sunk by Soviet torpedoes, but multiple dives have yielded no amber.

Hidden?

A recent tip led German investigators to an abandoned silver mine, south of Berlin, and to the shores of the Baltic, to dredge a murky lagoon. No luck in either case.

Though the hunt continues, and the mystery remains unsolved, a dazzling re-construction has now been built in its place.

"It captures the imagination and a certain hope against hope. The Amber Room is gone and nobody wants to believe that it's gone for good," said Alexander.

Grandeur Restored

Today, a lavish replica is open to the public, glowing in gold just like the original in the Catherine Palace, outside St. Petersburg.

The Russian government embarked on the painstaking re-construction in 1979, and finally finished it in 2003, with help from German donations, re-opening the room for the city's 300th birthday.

Those who visit the new Amber Room say it feels like stepping inside a life-size jewelry box.

There seems to be no end to the spectacular detail, with every inch covered in scallops, garlands and cherubs.

Re-Creating Magic

Many, who believe that amber heals, describe a feeling of light and heat coming from the walls. In fact, the tsars and tsarinas, and their guests who spent time in the Amber Room, all swore they felt an energy field.

A thin layer of gold foil, hanging behind the translucent amber panels, radiates a golden luminance. The room sparkles brilliantly in both daylight and candle light, just as it would have in the 18th century, filled with 500 candles.

Just re-creating these effects was practically a feat of magic.

Thousands of individual slivers in 20 hues, carved to perfection, including the monogram of King Frederick the First of Prussia, and the coat of arms of the Russian Empire, decorate the walls.

To do all this, craftsmen were retrained in artistic techniques, lost for centuries. For example, artisans spent 10 years trying to recover the most basic techniques used in the original constructionn — 230 experiments on just glues, alone.

They worked from old black and white photographs, analyzing them in terms of shades.


Photographs taken before the war guided the re-construction.

In the room's centerpiece are copies of four intricate Florentine mosaics that adorned the walls in extravagant amber frames. One of these is the original, stolen from the Amber Room crates during the war, discovered and returned in 2002. The long-laboring artisans were ecstatic to find their copy almost exactly matched!

One More Mystery

As the Nazis advanced on Russia, the museum workers, charged with protecting the room, failed to do so.

Were they worried the amber was too fragile to move, or did they think it would incur the wrath of Stalin if it stayed?

All we know is that they covered the walls in cotton and paper — a disguise the Nazis quickly saw through.

The Nazis removed the panels, packed them up and took them away. They had the technology, the equipment, and all the resources, so they brought museum experts to Russia to remove the Amber Room in the middle of the war.

Tourist Attraction

Today, thousands of visitors flock to the palace every year.

The floor, a mix of richly colored wood, inlaid in an intricate pattern, fit for royalty, needs to be protected, so, visitors to the museum have to don little booties, similar to those a surgeon wears.

For more about the Amber Room's re-opening, click here.

For more on visiting St. Petersburg, click here to go to Fodor's travel Web site.

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