One time, Germany and Russia lost an entire room. An extremely valuable, artistic masterpiece, eighth wonder of the world of a room. It’s quite the epic tale, full of alliances against Sweden, art conservators making poor life choices, and Nazis.
The reconstructed Amber Room in the Catherine Palace. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.
It begins in 1701 when Friedrich I, the first King of Prussia, commissioned a series of amber panels from an international team of master craftsmen. In 1711, Friedrich installed the finished panels in Berlin City Palace.
Friedrich’s son, Friedrich Wilhelm I, assumed the Prussian throne upon his father’s death in 1713. Not long after, Peter the Great paid a visit to the Prussian monarch, and admired the amber panels during his stay. In 1716, Friedrich presented his father’s panels to the Czar in order cement an alliance against Sweden (all this creation and exchange of amber-driven art was happening against the backdrop of Great Northern War, 1700-1721).
The amber panels arrived in Russian in 18 large boxes. After their installation in the Winter House in St. Petersburg, the panels underwent a renovation and expansion which concluded in 1755. Shortly thereafter, Czarina Elizabeth ordered the Amber Room moved to a larger space in the Catherine Palace. This move required that additional amber be shipped from Berlin, and by the time its transfer was complete, the Amber Room covered about 180 square feet, containing six tons of amber, gold leaf, and other semi-precious stones.
Photograph of the original Amber Room. Source and date unknown.
Photograph of the original Amber Room, taken in 1932. Image courtesy of the Novosti Press.
The Amber Room led a fairly quiet domestic existence after that. Czarina Elizabeth used it as a private meditation chamber, Catherine the Great used it as a gathering space, and Alexander II, an amber connoisseur, used it as a trophy space. The Soviets maintained it after the Revolution, though by the 1940s the amber had become dry and brittle.
Which posed quite a problem to the curators tasked with its removal.
On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa launched some three million German soldiers into the Soviet Union. Knowing the Nazi proclivity towards art theft, the curators responsible for the removal and protection of Leningrad’s treasures understood that they had to act fast. But as they removed the panels of the Amber Room, the amber began to crumble.
Caught between fear of the approaching Nazis, fear of destroying the Amber Room, and fear of the Nazis taking the room, the curators decided that the best solution was to cover their world famous charge in mundane wallpaper.
The Catherine Palace post-Amber Room theft. Image date and source unknown, taken from the Daily Mail.
The Nazi Art Theft Division was, shockingly, not fooled, and disassembled the Amber Room in less than two days. On October 14, 1941, they packed it into 27 crates, and shipped it to Konigsberg, Germany (present-day Kaliningrad) for storage and display in the city’s castle museum. There it remained until January 1945, when Hitler order the removal of all looted objects from Konigsberg.
The Amber Room in Konigsberg, Germany in 1942. Image courtesy of Alamy.com.
There are a lot of stories about what happened next. Some claim that Hitler’s orders were followed, and that the Amber Room was packed into crates for transport. A group of eyewitnesses claims to have seen the crates at a railway station. Others hold that the crates were loaded aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship sunk by a Soviet submarine. Others still insist that the crates were buried in a secret location long since forgotten. In 1997, a group of German detectives received a tip that someone was trying to sell a piece of the Amber Room. The seller was the son of a deceased German soldier whom had helped pack up the room; the fragment is now in the hands of the Russian government.
It is most likely that the Amber Room was destroyed during the April, 1945 Battle of Konigsberg. The city’s German administrators fled as Soviet forces advanced on the city, and the ensuing Battle of Konigsberg, which lasted from April 6-April 9, 1945, left 80% of the city in ruins.
In June, 1945, Alexander Brusov, the chief of the first formal Soviet mission to find the Amber Room, wrote, “Summarizing all the facts, we can say that the Amber Room was destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945.” Brusov later retracted this statement, most likely under pressure from other Soviet officials wishing to obscure the possibility that Soviet soldiers may have been responsible for the room’s destruction. Indeed the Soviet government continued to search for the Room despite their own experts’ conclusions, most likely for the very same reason.
Interestingly, the Soviet government restricted access to the remains of the Konigsberg Castle after the war, even to archaeological and historical surveys. In 1968, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the demolition of Konigsberg Castle, making any onsite research of the last known home of the Amber Room all but impossible, and destroying any pieces of the room which may have survived.
In 2004, British investigative journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy set out to find the Amber Room, or at least, to determine its fate once and for all. The two authors concluded that the Amber Room was most likely destroyed during or in the aftermath of the Battle of Konigsberg.
Since the book’s release, Russian officials have rather defensively denied its conclusions. Adelaida Yolkina, a senior researcher at the Pavlovsk Museum Estate stated that “It is impossible to see the Red Army being so careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed.” Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, stated that “Most importantly, the destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is the fault of the people who started the war.”
Regardless, somewhere between the Wallpaper Incident, the Nazi belief that the the Amber Room was made by and for Germans, the likely non-removal of the room before the Battle of Konigsberg, and the 1968 Soviet destruction of the last known home of the Amber Room, the room disappeared, and was never seen in public after 1945. In the end, I guess Sweden got the last laugh, as it remained passive aggressively neutral throughout World War II. That’ll teach Prussia and Russia to exchange anti-Swedish alliance art.
In 1979 the Soviet government decided that it was high time to resurrect the almost lost art of amber carving and construct a new Amber Room. It took 24 years, millions of dollars (including a sizable German donation), and consultations of drawings and black and white photographs of the original Amber Room. In 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder presented the new Amber Room.
The Reconstructed Amber Room. Image courtesy of Wikipedia user jeanyfan.
The new Amber Room is housed in the Catherine Palace, and is open to the public for viewing.
Earlier this month, a spectacular cache of more than 1,400 artworks surfaced in Germany—works that had been unknown to the public or presumed to be lost. And as details have emerged, one elderly American has been on the phone to his lawyer every day.
For the past five years, 88-year-old David Toren and his 92-year-old brother—both Holocaust survivors—have been trying to track down a beautiful painting that their great-uncle, the collector David Friedmann, lost due to Nazi persecution: “Two riders on the beach,” by the German Impressionist Max Liebermann. Their lawyer spotted the long-lost painting on TV when it was presented to the public as one of the pieces discovered in an apartment in Munich. But whether the brothers will ever get it back is far from clear.
Between 1933 and 1945, the tightening grip of the Third Reich facilitated one of history’s biggest art thefts. Initially, Jewish dealers were effectively forced to sell their precious collections at bargain prices before fleeing abroad. Later, Jewish-owned collections—such as those of David Friedmann, who died of natural causes in 1942—were systematically confiscated. Other pieces were looted after their owners were deported to concentration camps. Paintings that were deemed modern or subversive were snatched from museums and exhibited as “degenerate” art.
London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is publishing online two volumes which record what the Nazi regime did with confiscated ‘degenerate art’.
Hitler believed post-impressionist modern art, including Expressionists such as Kandinsky and Otto Dix, to be “evidence of a deranged mind”.
He ordered more than 16,000 artworks, including works by Van Gogh and Man Ray, to be removed from German museums.
The ledgers reveal the fate of those artworks, many of which were destroyed.
The Entartete Kunst inventory, compiled in 1941-42, was donated to the V&A by the widow of Heinrich Robert (Harry) Fischer in 1996. The term Entartete Kunst translates as “degenerate art”.
Since then it has been used by art researchers across the world as they attempt to identify the provenance of particular paintings that went missing during the Nazi era.
V&A curator Douglas Dodds, who is responsible for making the ledgers available to the the public, told the BBC that the volumes were “systematically organised”.
“This was a major campaign managed from the top,” he told the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz.
“For me there are so many echoes of what happened later to people, as well as artworks.”
For each institution, confiscated works are listed alphabetically by artist and include information on what happened to each piece - using symbols such as “T” (for exchanged) and “V” (for sold). Those marked “X” were destroyed.
Often the name of the work’s buyer and a price are given, with names including Hermann Goering and Hildebrand Gurlitt frequently recurring.
Hitler, a failed artist, maintained that “anyone who sees and paints the sky green and fields blue ought to be sterilised”, there was still some “uncertainty ” among other Nazi leaders about what constituted “good art”, prompting Goring to buy up some of the artworks for his own private collection.
Hildebrand Gurlitt is the father of Cornelius Gurlitt, in whose Munich apartment more than 1,400 artworks were found last year, many of which were alleged to have been looted by the Nazis.
It was in response the discovery of Gurlitt’s trove of paintings - including works, long thought to have been lost or destroyed, by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse - that the V&A decided to make the records public.
Many of the paintings withdrawn from Germany’s museums had been loaned by private individuals and were never returned.
Much of the documentation held by the institutions from which the art was confiscated has never been made available to those seeking the restitution of lost art, so the V&A volumes will offer new hope.