Hunt on for Tsars' Amber Room

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CRAFTED entirely out of amber, gold and precious stones, it was a masterpiece of baroque art and widely regarded as the world’s most important art treasure.

When its 565 candles were lit, the famous Amber Room was said to glow a fiery gold.

Looted by the Nazis , its whereabouts have been a mystery since the dying days of the Second World War.

But now a new German investigation believes it has found where the treasure, worth 120 million today, lies - in abandoned mine workings in the former East Germany.

One of the few facts all historians seem to agree on is that soon after it was seized, the Prussian count Sommes Laubach, the Germans’ "art protection officer" and holder of a degree in art history, supervised the room’s transport to Knigsberg Castle.

But in January 1945, after air raids and a savage ground assault on the city, the room was lost.

Through interviews and historical records, a German TV documentary team making a programme has concentrated on the actions of Albert Popp, a brigadier with the Nazi flying corps before the Second World War. He was the nephew of Martin Mutschmann, the Gauleiter of Saxony.

Based on archive material and interviews with bit players in the drama of the fall of Knigsberg, the programme alleges the Amber Room was moved by Popp, on the orders of his uncle, to old mine workings near Elsterberg, not far from Chemnitz.

The programme on ZDF TV said archive searches refer to an underground storage area called "Eagle 5". Given that the bulk of the booty looted for Adolf Hitler’s planned museum of world culture was found in salt mines in Austria, the Nazis could well have transported the Amber Room 500 miles from Knigsberg to a locale deep inside the crumbling reich.

Christoph Hoeffermann, a Berlin estate agent who is a keen enthusiast of the Amber Room hunt, believes this is the most likely explanation for its disappearance. Having spent some 30,000 looking for it, he said: "I am a believer in the Popp theory and I am glad it is getting an airing on TV.

"Popp had the means, the connections and the wherewithal to get the Amber Room moved. Unfortunately he is dead and we can’t ask him. But we can have one last concerted effort at trying to find this most beguiling of artworks."

He and others have written to Elsterberg authorities, seeking assistance in locating old coal workings. The hills around Elsterberg and other towns in the region are speckled with abandoned workings: the question is where to start looking.

The programme comes just two months before a German-financed copy of the room is to open in St Petersburg.

Although missing since the war, the 11ft-square monument still holds a fascination. It was presented to Peter the Great in 1716 by the King of Prussia. Later, Catherine the Great commissioned a new generation of craftsmen to embellish the room and moved it from the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to her new summer abode in Tsarskoye Selo, outside the city.

"When the work was finished, in 1770, the room was dazzling," wrote the art historians Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov. "It was illuminated by 565 candles whose light was reflected in the warm gold surface of the amber and sparkled in the mirrors, gilt, and mosaics."

After the war, the Amber Room became central Europe's El Dorado, a quest that enthralled the wealthy and the poor alike.

The Maigret author Georges Simenon founded the Amber Room Club to track it down once and for all. Everyone had a different theory of what might have befallen the work. The German official in charge of the amber shipment said the crates were in a castle that burned down in an air raid.

A Soviet investigator found a charred fragment from the room.

Others think the room sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea in a torpedoed steamer used by the Nazis, or that it was hacked up by Red Army troops and sent home like sticks of rock as souvenirs of their conquest.

People such as Hoeffermann who believe the Amber Room still exists are determined to follow the new lead.

They are heartened by the comments of Vera Bruyussova, the widow of a noted Soviet archaeologist charged to look for the treasure.

She revealed that her husband, Alexander, wrote a memo to the Soviet leadership in 1955 stating: "I do not believe that the treasure is lost."

Like all the others captivated by it, however, he could not say where it was.