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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hoard of Collector's Items, Lost and Found

KIROVOGRAD, Ukraine -- Few visitors were ever allowed into Alexander Ilyin's ramshackle house in this wheat-country town. When he died, people found out why.

Ilyin had been a familiar scruffy figure around here, an electrician for local cafeterias. With his long face and burning eyes, he resembled a scrawny vampire; in his ancient shoes and shabby coat, he could pass for a bum.

The eyes gave him away. He was a man with an illicit passion burning so strong that nothing -- not the KGB, not the criminal underworld, not the bonds of Soviet ideology -- could stand in its way.

After he died last fall at 73, local officials invaded Ilyin's home with an order to freeze his property until his rightful heirs could be determined. They had suspicions about what they would find; everyone in town knew Ilyin was a collector.

But they had never imagined the magnitude of the treasure he left, a monument to the peculiar ingenuity of a true collector who could overcome anything -- even the repression of a communist police state that frowned on private property -- to amass his hoard.

Ilyin had done the seemingly impossible. He had accumulated an entire museum -- tens of thousands of rare books along with gold- and silver-framed icons, paintings and antiques -- under the Soviet regime. His cache included 16th-century books believed to be published by the Russian Gutenberg -- Ivan Fyodorov -- and tome after leather-bound tome of valuable manuscripts.

The Soviet Union had no equivalent of Sotheby's auction house, but some of Ilyin's methods of procurement can be guessed.

He bought valuables at bargain-basement prices from fallen noble families and needy pensioners, victims of revolution, war and poverty. He swapped with less knowledgeable colleagues. According to many, he also corrupted library and museum officials to obtain choice objets, and may have had dealings with criminals.

Kirovograd residents shake their heads in bewildered wonder at the size of his collection.

"He was a collector of the highest order," said librarian Alexander Chudnov, an Ilyin prot?g? who is helping to catalog the hoard. "People often compare the love of books to the love of women -- he knew value and to some extent it was love that turned into lust, into a 'This is mine!'"

Ilyin's home and an annex on the lot had no plumbing or central heating, like most houses in the Ukrainian countryside. But officials found both to be stuffed with the density of a moving van. Ancient books teetered in floor-to-ceiling piles, some rotting in the damp and nibbled by mice.

Ilyin's niece, Irina Podtyolkova, and her husband lived with the collector and objected furiously to the state intervention. But this was bigger than both of them.

"It was like coming into a cave," said Oksana Nelga, a librarian who helped pack up and list the Ilyin collection."First the fear, then the surprise of finding silver wrapped in rags."

The treasures of the Ilyin household created a sensation. The local press, quoting an overly enthusiastic official, claimed that the books and other valuables were worth $40 billion, more than the Ukrainian state budget for the last several years.

Their actual value is uncertain. Rare Russian book collections sold for millions of rubles back when that would have been millions of dollars, said Alexandra Guseva of the rare books section of Moscow's Lenin Library. But Harry Leich, Russian specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress, said there seems to be little market for them now.

Nonetheless, "I would not underestimate the cultural value of it," Leich said, noting that the discovery of an extensive private Russian collection is "a major event culturally and historically. Because of the vicissitudes of history, there aren't many of them around."

Ilyin's collection, which local museum director Pavel Bosiy valued at several million dollars, is not all catalogued yet, and the authenticity of some of the rarest books must be checked.

But officials at the Kirovograd museum, which serves the province's population of 1.5 million, figure that Ilyin's collection outstrips theirs.

Ilyin loved the baroque and rococo styles of pre-revolutionary Russia. His collection included magnificent books such as "The Byzantine Enamels" and "The Great Princes and Tsars Hunting in Russia," coffee-table-size editions printed at 200 or so copies with illustrations.

The Communists hated the tsars. Ilyin bought their portraits, one of them apparently done by the renowned painter Dmitry Levitsky, who died in the early 19th century.

Ilyin had taste, but there was an unsavory side to his collecting.

Some of Ilyin's books have library stamps in them, catalogers said. And how are they to explain Ilyin's possession of the very Bible that the Empress Yelizaveta bestowed upon their city back when it was called Yelizavetgrad

During World War II, Ilyin may or may not have taken advantage of his country's chaos. What he definitely exploited was the communist ideal of equality that left everyone equally poor.

"Back when pensions were 12 rubles a month" -- then about $20 -- "an old lady would let you take an icon with silver and enamel and jewels for 30 rubles. People needed every penny," said Ivan Anastasiev, a fellow collector in Kirovograd.

One of the main mysteries about Ilyin is that he lived as a poor man, eating for free in the cafeterias where he worked and wearing the uniforms provided on the job.