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Germany

Treasure hunters resume hunt for Amber Room

The hunt for the fabled Amber Room is still on, 70 years after its disappearance. Three rival digs are getting underway in Germany, each confident of finding the valuable treasure - if it still exists.

The Amber Room, the most famous and valuable piece of art looted by Nazi Germany, has eluded treasure hunters ever since it went missing in the final months of the Second World War.

Even the mighty Soviet KGB and the ruthlessly meticulous East German Stasi secret service abandoned their quests for the baroque chamber decoration stolen from a Russian palace in October 1941 and brought to the castle of Königsberg, capital of the former East Prussia.

But scores of intrepid amateurs never gave up searching, especially in Germany, where the "Bernsteinzimmer" holds an enduring fascination. Its fate is shrouded in a swirling mist of legends as varied as the warm hues of amber that adorned its walls.

"It's the world's most famous and coveted treasure, everyone's fascinated by it, just look at the media coverage it gets," Karl-Heinz Kleine, 68, a pensioner from Wuppertal who sounds convinced he will find it, told DW.

Karl-Heinz Kleine

Kleine devotes much of his time to hunting

Undeterred by the risk of booby trap bombs and collapsing tunnels, Kleine is leading one of three rival excavations underway in Germany this spring. He believes it's somewhere under the western city of Wuppertal, where he happens to live. His two competitors are the mayors of two small towns in eastern Germany, Nobitz and Deutschneudorf. They each plan to conduct digs in the coming months when the ground softens.

Why Wuppertal of all places? Simple, says Klein. Erich Koch, the Nazi leader of East Prussia who amassed his own trove of looted treasure, came from Wuppertal. So it would make sense for him to have dispatched the Amber Room there, a place safe from Soviet forces, where he might return.

"I'm very confident because look at all the people who've been searching for it for so long all over the place. And what have they found? Nothing," said Kleine. "With us, we're not relying on what some supposed eyewitness said on his deathbed, we're guided by a historical fact. And Erich Koch's a historical fact."

Ups and downs

Kleine said he was entitled to a finder's fee of three percent of the value, which some estimate at 250 million euros ($275 million). There is little doubt that if it were ever found, it would be handed back to Russia, which built a replica Amber Room in Catherine Palace with German financial assistance. It was opened in 2003.

A detail from the rebuilt Amber Room

The room is an inspiration for many

The problem for Kleine is that the Amber Room could be in any one of the 170 bunkers and caverns under Wuppertal, said Kleine, who has six fellow diggers. He's been at it since 2010. How much have they explored so far? "No idea."

His most pressing challenge is the lack of a drill. He had to hand back the one he borrowed, and his pension doesn't stretch to a new one.

Fortunately, an appeal for donations led to several offers, including one from America and a "huge one" from Russia, said Kleine, who spends four or five days a week hunting.

The Amber Room symbolizes the ups and downs of German-Russian relations. Craftsmen fashioned it for the first king of Prussia, Friedrich I. In 1716, his son Friedrich Wilhelm I gifted it to Russian Tsar Peter the Great to boost an alliance with Russia.

Empress Elizabeth embellished it with Venetian mirrored pilasters and Florentine stone mosaics. Visitors who beheld the sunlight trapped in its amber gasped that it was the Eighth Wonder of the World. German troops seized it from Catherine Palace as they laid siege to Leningrad. It went on show in Königsberg castle in 1942 before being dismantled and packed into crates.

Last seen on the Baltic

So where is it now? Did it leave Königsberg, now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad? Some say it's in a shipwreck in the Baltic. Or that it was destroyed in the war.

Heinz-Peter Haustein, one of Germany's foremost Amber Room hunters, is the mayor of Deutschneudorf in the Ore Mountains, a region honeycombed with old mines. He's certain the Amber Room is in there somewhere.

Heinz-Peter Haustein

Mayor Haustein scoffs at the idea of the Amber Room being anywhere but Saxony

"Let them dig," he said a tad dismissively when asked to comment on the other excavations. Haustein led a search in 2008 attended by international media. He found nothing but never gave up. "We're waiting for the snow to clear and then it will go quickly," he told DW. "We're optimistic and fully committed."

Kleine scoffs at Haustein's plans. "Let him have his fun. He won't find the Amber Room."

Meanwhile, the mayor of Nobitz, Hendrik Läbe, believes it could be in a cavern under a forest near Leipzig. It's a place where the Stasi dug in 1964. "They were almost at the right place," he told the Thüringer Allgemeine Zeitung last month. "But a few meters off can make all the difference."

Mario Morgner, an author who has researched the Amber Room for 25 years, doesn't think any of them will find it.

"It will be just like in the past years. They'll dig, the media will be delighted but they won't find anything." Why not? "I think it's somewhere in the Königsberg area."

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