The chaos in the art world resulting from World War II continues to this day, as paintings, icons and sculptures routinely emerge in auction rooms and private sales. As the Nazi armies raced towards Leningrad in 1941, the Catherine Palace was hastily dismantled and Peter the Great's art treasures packed away. One of them, a room made of panels of amber mined from the Baltic Sea a gift from the King of Prussia has never been found. In September 2001, journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark began their own search for the Amber Room, combing through archives in Moscow, Leningrad and Berlin, interviewing the few surviving figures and relatives of those deceased, and poring over previously unknown diaries. Their quest is meticulously recounted in The Amber Room: Uncovering the Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Art Treasure. Levy and Scott-Clark have turned up two conflicting stories as to the fate of the Amber Room.
One theory follows the reasoning of Anatoly Kuchumov, a curator in charge of packing up Leningrad's art treasures as the Germans invaded in 1941. Figuring that the Amber Room could not be moved, Kuchumov decided to disguise it instead. Another theory comes from archeology professor Alexander Brusov, who led the first search for the room just as the war ended in 1945. He concluded it had been carted off by the Nazis to Konigsberg Castle in East Prussia, where it survived until the city fell to the Red Army on April 9. By the end of May, the castle was a charred ruin, undoubtedly the work of Red Army troops, unaware that Russian art treasures were stored there.
Perhaps finally accepting the probability of the room's destruction, Russia began assembling a replica in 1999, which officially opened in May 2003. While the fate of the room may never be established, The Amber Room is a fascinating tale of obsession, intrigue and fabrication rivaling a work of fiction. And since art works supposedly "missing" in the war continue to be uncovered, there may be a trove of similar stories waiting to be told. Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati, Ohio, and La Veta, Colorado.