The true story told in Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy's Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure (Walker, $26) begs to be introduced in fairy-tale fashion. Once there was an amber room. Its panels were made of amber, a substance that at the time was a dozen times more valuable than gold. Going into the room must have been like entering the heart of a glowing ember. It was commissioned by Frederick I of Prussia and given to Peter the Great of Russia. Catherine the Great had it installed in her palace outside St. Petersburg, where, as a 19th-century visitor wrote of it, "The eye is amazed and blinded by the wealth and warmth of tints -- from smoky topaz to a light lemon."

But like so many other fabled objects, the Amber Room was eventually lost. This happened sometime during World War II, after the Nazi army invaded Russia; when Soviet curators made their way back to the palace in 1944, the room had vanished. Scott-Clark and Levy, both investigative journalists, have stalked the truth about the room from Berlin to St. Petersburg and beyond, uncovering what they call "an extraordinary cover-up." Meanwhile, a reconstruction of the room, partly funded by the German firm Ruhrgas, went on display in St. Petersburg last year.

-- Dennis Drabelle