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Saturday, 12 October, 2002, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Ukraine's mystery house of treasures
Items from the collection on display in Dnipropetrovsk
Mr Ilyin amassed 74,000 valuable artefacts
A giant exhibition of art and antiques accumulated in mysterious circumstances by a private collector has recently gone on tour in Ukraine - almost a decade after its owner died in obscurity.

Oleksandr Ilyin, who died in 1993, led a reclusive and apparently uneventful life in the provincial Ukrainian town of Kyrovohrad.

He earned a meagre salary as an electrician, went round in shabby overalls, had no family and never socialised.

Portrait of Ilyin in 1950s
Portrait of the collector as a young man
But the enormous collection he assembled in secret would put to shame many a museum around the world, Ukrainian Novyy Kanal television says.

Antique furniture, ancient archaeological artefacts, 17th century jewellery, paintings, statues, icons and books - a total of 74,000 items packed the humble electrician's two-storey house to the rafters.

Nobody knows exactly how much the collection is worth, but the figure certainly runs into millions.

The treasure

After Mr Ilyin's death his hoard came into the possession of the Kyrovohrad museum, which took six months to take stock of its windfall.

The collection is currently on display in the city of Dnipropetrovsk.

Goblet made by famous Ukrainian goldsmith Ivan Ravych for Peter the Great
Created for Peter the Great
It includes one of the few surviving copies of the Ostrog Bible, the first full Slavonic translation of the scriptures printed in Ukraine in 1581.

Another book, on Byzantine enamels, was already worth a fortune when it was first published in 1892, and is now valued at $2m (1.3m).

Also on display is a precious drinking vessel made in the 17th century by the famous Ukrainian goldsmith Ivan Ravych as a gift to Peter the Great.

"Estimates putting the value of the collection at $40bn are greatly exaggerated, but its unique nature is beyond any doubt," the Kyrovohrad museum's director told Ukrainian Inter TV.

The keeper

Some of Mr Ilyin's neighbours suspected there was more to him than met the eye, and in art collecting circles he was regarded as something of an authority.

But how he acquired his treasure is still a mystery.

Some say he was a descendant of a noble Russian family, the Rimsky-Korsakovs, and could have inherited part of the collection from his mother.

Others suggest he was a godfather of Soviet organised crime.

The most plausible explanation, however, is that Mr Ilyin was just taking care of the collection - much of it apparently stolen from the Russian Orthodox Church - for the Soviet secret service.

Part of icon dated 1752
Was this icon stolen from the Orthodox Church?
Born in 1920, Ilyin was sentenced to three years for robbery in 1944.

But he was suddenly released after spending only four months in prison - the kind of lenient treatment accorded to very few people in Stalin's Russia.

Mr Ilyin's diaries suggest he worked for Lavrenti Beria, the infamous chief of the Soviet secret police, and frequently travelled throughout the country.

His humble job was apparently a cover, which also gave him a chance to prowl private homes in search of new pieces for his jealously guarded collection.

The Kyrovohrad museum director says some of the items were given to Ilyin - who was a talented artisan - by unsuspecting art collectors and museums for restoration.

He kept the originals, returning finely crafted fakes instead.

From rags to riches

The museum in Kyrovohrad has recently published a catalogue of the Ilyin collection.

But the pieces now on tour in Ukraine constitute only a fraction of the whole.

The museum, which went from rags to riches literally overnight, says the collection is so big that it will take years to authenticate all the items.

More priceless treasures may yet turn up in the truckloads of antiques brought from Mr Ilyin's home.

But one thing is already certain: the sleepy Ukrainian outback of Kyrovohrad is now firmly on the cultural map of Europe.

Pictures of the individual items by kind permission of the Kyrovohrad Regional Scientific Library

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

See also:

27 Nov 01 | Arts
03 Oct 02 | Media reports
29 Sep 02 | Country profiles
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