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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Collector's Dream Fulfilled

As Irina Antonova strolled through the new Russian Museum of Private Collections at its official opening, she was followed by a retinue of reporters and admirers. They walked slightly behind her, as if she were royalty. One of the journalists politely congratulated the durable director on the success of her new museum.

"Thank you, but it is not my museum," responded Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts for over 20 years. "It belongs to the collectors and their families."

None is more important, perhaps, than Ilya Zilbershtein, an art critic and historian who died in 1988. It was his idea to establish a museum to honor Russian art collectors; without him -- and his vast collection of art -- this modern extension to the Pushkin museum would never have existed.

In the foyer at the entrance of the museum, which opened to the public Wednesday, the names of private collectors whose art makes up the bulk of the permanent displays are written in gold on a large plexiglass sign. Alexander Rodchenko's wife and son, who gave several posters and photographs by the renowned constructivist; the son and daughter of David Shteremberg, who donated about a dozen of the avant-garde painter's canvases; Tretyakov, Pasternak and others.

Zilbershtein's name is there, too, but his galleries and the thick catalog available at the book stall separate him from the others.

On the second floor, prominently displayed, is a good chunk of Zilbershtein's collection. Like most art collectors during the Soviet era, Zilbershtein was never rich; his first creative purchase was a set of inexpensive paintings he bought from an old book seller who needed some extra money. During the next sixty years, through buying, selling and trading, he managed to accumulate thousands of pieces of art, including a drawing by Rembrandt, 17th to 19th century French graphics, and classical Russian watercolors.

Born in Odessa in 1905, Zilbershtein decided early that he wanted to be a collector; he bought his first set of drawings at age 17.

"I was obsessed with love for Russian history and Russian art," Zilbershtein wrote in 1973. "I could not help dreaming of becoming a collector."

Zilbershtein went about amassing his collection patiently. To him, time was not money; time took the place of money. He used to wake up every morning at 5:30 and say "Good afternoon" jokingly to his first caller, usually around 8:30. He worked tirelessly and constantly searched for valuable little drawings and canvases.

Three years before he died, Zilbershtein donated nearly 2,000 paintings and drawings to the Pushkin. The collector proposed to his friend Antonova that the Pushkin acquire the building next door, which at the time was headquarters of the state auto export organization. Once the city manor of the affluent Golitsyn family in the 18th and 19th centuries, the building even looked like a museum. In 1986, the city government gave the building to the Pushkin, and from 1987 to 1993, the house was renovated.

To obtain all his art, Zilbershtein had to do a fair amount of wheeling and dealing, often in secret. Alexei Kovalyov, who writes about art for the daily Segodnya, says that most people thought Zilbershtein was an unpleasant person, completely obsessed with himself and his art -- and keeping what he had safe. This was typical, Kovalyov says, for Russian collectors during the Soviet era.

"There were great collections in the houses of Cheka officers who confiscated pictures," Kovalyov says, referring to the precursor of the KGB. "If you were in the CheKa, it was easy to arrest someone who had a picture you liked."

Somehow Zilbershtein managed to elude any trouble of that kind. Instead, he was absorbed with art and history of the 19th century, and this interest resulted in the centerpiece of his collection, and one of the most interesting galleries in the Russian Museum of Private Collections.

In the Decembrist uprising of 1825, 20 officers from the nobility staged a revolt against the Tsar Nikolai I and demanded that he liberate Russia's serfs. The coup failed; seven of the officers were executed, and the rest were sent to Siberia. Among the conspirators was Nikolai Bestuzhov, an amateur artist who, while exiled, painted portraits of all the Decembrists.

Even though the portraits are nothing special artistically, Kovalyov says, they are quite important historically. Soviet art historians had said that the portraits were lost for good, but Zilbershtein had a hunch that they were stashed somewhere in Siberia. Through "sources," as Zilbershtein said, he discovered that they were in a small Siberian town. He went there in the late 1970s, bought them, and the portraits became part of his collection.

Kovalyov thinks that the Russian Museum of Private Collections is too late. Although Zilbershtein and some of the artists' families managed to keep much of their property and eventually donate it to museums in Russia, many did not.

"Before, private collectors needed to be protected," Kovalyov said. "Many found a way to sell their art abroad. Now the museum is only important as a new building, and I think it looks like the offices of a big business firm."

Nevertheless, Zilbershtein's vision became a reality this week. The museum may be late, but in a sense that is in keeping with the collector's philosophy. "As Balzac said, in order to get certain things, you need only time," Zilbershtein wrote in late in his life. "All my years have been years of search; I expended so much time and energy."