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 Editorial Editorial 

The hunt for the Amber Chamber

It is a tale with all the classic ingredients of an edge-of-your-seat thriller: mystery deaths, Nazis and a modern-day chase for a stolen trove of early 18th century treasure. The fate of the Amber Chamber, in reality a set of lavishly gilded panels, has puzzled authorities, historians and researchers since the final months of World War II. On May 31, the leaders of Russia and Germany will inaugurate a costly copy of the room as part of Saint Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations.

It has taken 20 years, six tonnes of amber and some 11.5 million dollars to build the room as it might have looked when King Friedrich-Wilhelm of Prussia gave the panels as a present to Tsar Peter I of Russia in 1716. But the mystery of the original panels remains unsolved. "I'm regularly contacted by people, mostly elderly, claiming to know where the Amber Chamber is and who are ready to tell me, for a price," said Wolfgang Eichwede, part of the scientific committee behind the reconstruction.

Not everyone is happy with the new version. "Nothing can replace the original, it was unique," said Hans Stadelmann, a German amateur historian who has spent 15 years looking for the lost panels. The last time they were seen was in 1941 at Koenigsberg, then the main town in East Prussia but now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Nazi soldiers took the curved amber panels there after stripping them from Tsarskoye Selo, the summer residence of Russian tsars. But the panels disappeared in 1945 at war's end.

Stadelmann is convinced they were secreted in one of scores of inaccessible underground rooms below a Nazi-era building in Weimar, eastern Germany. His theory connects the panels to Erich Koch, a Nazi Gauleiter for Ukraine and East Prussia, whose collection of stolen art vanished at the same time as Soviet troops were entering Koenigsberg. Stadelmann says Koch, who was captured in 1949 and died in a Polish jail in 1986, confessed: "Find my collection and you'll find the Amber Chamber." His problem is that authorities in Weimar do not believe him. Assuming the panels were evacuated from Koenigsberg in time, other theories place them on a wreck in the Baltic Sea, in mines deep in east Germany's Harz mountains or even in some dusty corner of a Bavarian castle. And there are sudden deaths too, like that of Alfred Rohde, a Nazi official who was in charge in 1945 when the panels were put into crates. He died later that year. The suspicious Soviets reportedly opened the tomb in early 1946, presumably hunting for the panels, and found it empty.

Georg Stein, a German former soldier who was also looking for the treasure, was found dead in a forest in 1987, a knife in his stomach. Stadelmann said Stein's son did not believe the official verdict of suicide and claimed his father had been in touch with the Stasi, the secret police of formerly communist East Germany. The Stasi also spent years looking for the panels, even creating a special unit in the 1970-1980s to search more than 100 possible hiding-places. In 1997, a panel measuring 55 by 70.5 centimetres (21.5 by 27.5 inches) was seized by police from a lawyer in Bremen, northern Germany. It was authenticated by experts and handed back to Russia, where it served as a guideline for the reconstruction.

Hopes of finding the rest quickly faded: the panel had been plundered by a German soldier in 1941, long before the war's end. Of course, the treasure may still be hidden in a collapsed bunker somewhere in Koenigsberg. "But the probability is much greater that it was destroyed in the fighting in 1945," said Eichwede. "Or," said Stadelmann, "somebody has it, and they're keeping quiet."


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