How Experts Finally Reconstructed the "Eighth Wonder of the World"

The Amber Room, a jewel worth hundreds of millions, vanished during World War II. Russia would spend two decades recreating it.

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May 17 2017, 4:22am

The Amber Room at Catherine Palace, a recreation of the original. All images courtesy of Tsarskoye Selo State Museum unless otherwise noted.

Every few years, the mystery of the long-lost Amber Room, which was stolen from Russia by the Nazis in 1941, makes headlines. A team of German retirees are digging through tunnels looking for it, guided by one man's intuition. Last year, a Polish museum thought they might uncover the loot inside the hidden chamber of a Nazi bunker. Yet the ornate chamber, whose original construction dates back to the early 18th century, remains unfound. Many believe it was destroyed in the closing hours of World War II, and that even if it is found all these years later, it will probably have deteriorated beyond repair. In 1979, Soviet authorities sided with the realists, decided the searches were a lost cause, and redirected their energies towards a project with more tangible results: reconstruction.

Hand-colored photograph of the original Amber Room, 1931. Image in the public domain.

Yet recreating an 18th century monarch's frivolous, no-expenses-barred luxury den is easier said than done. The room, whose construction began in 1701 for Frederick I of Prussia and his wife Sophie Charlotte, was originally designed for Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin. It would eventually be installed at Berlin City Palace, but only for a short time—in 1716, it was offered as a gift to Russia's Peter the Great in order to cement a political alliance. The panels, which arrived in 18 large boxes, were reworked by craftsmen and installed at Catherine Palace, the imperial family's summer retreat. The astonishing final design, 55 meters long, counted six tons of amber and other semi-precious stones, whose warm glow was reflected by candlelight in the room's many mirrors.

Recreation of Amber Room, with Florentine mosaic at center

Dozens of artisans and restorers were called upon to duplicate the room in the 1980s, and essentially tasked with reviving the lost art form of amber carving. According to the "Amber Workshop" website, police equipment was used to analyze photographic evidence of the original room, and determine the exact measurements of each decorative element. With little more than flattened, black-and-white views available, determining the height of the amber carvings and the various hues of the original amber plates proved challenging—and presumably required some educated guesses. In order to recreate the four Florentine mosaic scenes on display in the chamber, semi-precious stones were sourced across the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and Italy. Over 20 years, nearly eight million dollars were spent on the project—and an extra three-and-a-half million were donated by a German firm in 1999 to secure its completion.

Detail of amber carving.

Unveiled in 2003 during a joint ceremony with Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the replica is now open to the public at the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo. Several years earlier, one of the original Florentine mosaics was discovered, and the recreation proved to be nearly indistinguishable: "The most serious critics and opponents of the project finally admitted the skills of our stone-cutters," boasts the project's website. As for the rest of the room, we may never know how close it comes to the original—though, if we are to believe a wildly confident German hobby historian, that'll be any day now.

To learn more about the Amber Room, a sound history from Smithsonian Mag is available here.

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