The internet tells me that if I travel to St Petersburg and find the Tsarskoye in nearby Pushkin, I can visit the baroque Catherine Palace, also known as “The Great Palace of Tsarskoye Selo.” If I walk through the Palace’s Portrait Hall I will reach the Amber Room, which the website tells me is “the gem of the Catherine Palace and a sight that has been justifiably called one of the wonders of the world.”

It is perhaps appropriate that I have undertaken this virtual visit on the internet – because what exists today within the Catherine Palace is but a replica of the original, storied and now legendary Amber Room. Where the original is, and if it even still exists, remains a persistent and resilient mystery.

In the first decade of the 18th century Frederick I of Prussia had, at the urging of his second wife Sophie Charlotte (the great-granddaughter of James I of England), commissioned the creation of a room panelled entirely by sliced and veneered amber – essentially fossilised tree resin harvested mostly from the Baltic Sea, and hugely expensive. On 25 February 1713 he died, and was succeeded by his son King Frederick William I. Uninterested in the room and unimpressed by the cost, he gave the unfinished and unassembled room to Tsar Peter the Great in 1716 in order to cement the Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.

It was transported, not without significant problems, in eighteen specially designed crates to the Tsar’s Summer Palace at St Petersburg. But it languished there in its crates for the following three decades, unassembled.

Then in January 1743 the newly crowned Empress Elizabeth, the second-oldest surviving daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I of Russia, decreed that it should be assembled in her new Winter Palace on the River Neva in St Petersburg. The somewhat capricious Empress would order the Room moved, rebuilt and enlarged within the Winter Palace six times over the next 12 years until finally, in 1755, she directed that it be removed entirely from the Winter Palace and relocated to the baroque Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo – The Tsar’s Village – located in the town of Pushkin, 26 kilometres south of St Petersburg.

There it was reinstalled and there it remained. In 1762, Catherine II was crowned Empress and decided to overhaul the palaces of the Tsarskoye Selo. She brought 900 pounds of vastly expensive additional amber, and hired craftsmen from Prussia and Italy to complete the task. Visiting nearly a century later, in 1866, the poet Theophile Gautier wrote:

Only in The Thousand and One Nights and in magic fairy tales, where the architecture of palaces is trusted to magicians, spirits and genies, one can read about rooms made of diamonds, rubies, jacinth and other jewels ... Here the expression Amber Room is not just a poetic hyperbole but exact reality... The eye … is amazed and is blinded by the wealth and warmth of tints, representing all colours of the spectrum of yellow – from smoky topaz up to a light lemon.

The Room survived the Revolution. By June 1941 the central heating in the Palace had made the amber brittle and, supposedly, simply unable to be dismantled. In the face of the invading German forces much from the Palace had been evacuated and sent by train into the east. But the Amber Room remained. The German army overran Pushkin in mid-September 1941. Despairing for the fate of the Room, the departing curators tried to hide it in plain sight – they tried to conceal it by building a second plain room of muslin, padding and hessian inside the Room itself. The desperate ruse did not fool the Germans for long.

The siege of Leningrad, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history and the most costly in terms of casualties, lasted 872 days. In January 1944, the Russian Red Army re-took Leningrad, and then Pushkin. When the curator who had tried to conceal the Amber Room years earlier returned to the Catherine Palace in late April 1944 (he had spent the duration of the siege living in appalling conditions in a museum in Novosibirsk, in south-western Siberia, caring for a train-load of evacuated treasures) he found nothing left but a burnt out shell:

Next we see a terrible site of fire. Naked brick walls covered in soot. Neither floor nor ceilings have survived. Nothing but a huge collapse through all three floors.

The Amber room had gone.

It had, it seems, been disassembled within days of the German arrival in Pushkin and sent, in mid-October 1941 and packed in 27 crates, for public display at Konisberg Castle, in East Prussia. It is unclear how much the amber panels lining the Room suffered in the move, but given that only part of the Room was put back on display it seems reasonable to assume that there was at least some damage done.

The Castle, along with much of the historic centre of the city, suffered extensively from the Allied bombing attacks that began in late August 1944, the city centre burning for days. Konisberg was besieged by the Red Army from early January 1945 for 3 months before surrendering on 9 April 1945. By then the Castle was in ruins, and the centre of the city practically obliterated.

The Amber Room was never seen again. Theories, including numerous conspiracies and disputed sightings, abound. The most likely fate, as described by Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy in their book The Amber Room, is that it remained in Konigsberg Castle and was destroyed when the Castle burned down.

The replica of the Room in the restored Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo was opened by Gerhard Schroder and Vladimir Putin in 2003, marking the 300th anniversary of the founding of St Petersburg. Periodically the finding of the original room is, somewhat breathlessly, announced. But thus far it remains stubbornly missing.