LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Researchers in the United States have found a new clue to a historical mystery in Russia. It's a case that concerns the Russian crown jewels, a gentleman adventurer from the 1920s and a one-of-a-kind book.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: This story begins, as so many great adventures do, in a library. In this case, it was the U.S. Geological Survey Library in Reston, Virginia. Richard Huffine, the director, was looking through the library's rare book collection when he came upon an oversized volume.

RICHARD HUFFINE: And there's no markings on the outside so there's no spine label or anything like that. And this one caught our eye and we pulled it aside to kind of take a further look at it.

FLINTOFF: The hand-drawn title page had the date 1922 and the title "The Russian Diamond Fund." The Diamond Fund is the name given to the imperial regalia of the Romanov family, the tsars of Russia for more than 300 years. Huffine knew they were on to something

HUFFINE: Several of the pictures at the very front of the album are the iconic, known products that you would think of for the Russian Crown Jewels, including the Orlov Diamond in the scepter, and the grand crown which has the huge, you know, stone at the top.

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UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: These are jewels of almost magical significance, symbols of unbridled power and wealth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD SAVE THE TSAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language)

KRISTEN REGINA: The crown jewels play an important part in the coronation story because the tsar crowns himself in the coronation and that is the moment when he takes full power.

FLINTOFF: That's Kristen Regina, the archivist at Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. She was called in because the Hillwood owns one of the few pieces of the Russian crown jewels outside of the Kremlin. The Romanov dynasty came to an end in 1917, amid the chaos of a world war, a revolution and a civil war.

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UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Regina says the fate of the crown jewels raised a furious debate among the Bolshevik leadership, which was badly in need of money. Some of the revolutionaries saw the jewels as symbols of centuries of exploitation - gems that ought to be sold to benefit the workers.

Historian Igor Zimin says much of the collection was preserved by curators at the Kremlin in Moscow, who were able to convince the leaders that the gems had enormous historical significance.

IGOR ZIMIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Zimin is the head of the history department at the St. Petersburg State Medical University. He is skeptical, by the way, about the newly rediscovered book because it's dated 1922, and an official photographic inventory of the crown jewels wasn't published until 1925.

The USGS has a copy of that book, too, and researcher Jenna Nolt has compared the two. She found that the 1922 volume shows four pieces of jewelry that don't appear in the later official book. Nolt says the researchers learned the fate of one of the pieces, a sapphire brooch - it was sold at auction in London in 1927.

JENNA NOLT: But the three other pieces - the necklace, the diadem and the bracelet - we have no idea what happened to them.

FLINTOFF: One person who might have known is the man who acquired the 1922 volume in the first place.

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FLINTOFF: He was an American mineralogist and gem expert who worked at various times for the jeweler Tiffany & Company and the USGS.

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FLINTOFF: His name was George Frederick Kunz, and his adventures took him to Russia in those dangerous years after the Civil War.

NOLT: And he's talking about how he's traveling with a pistol over his knees because he doesn't trust the driver of the carriage. So, yeah, I think an Indiana Jones figure, definitely.

FLINTOFF: The jewels of the Russian Diamond Fund are on display in the Kremlin in Moscow - well, most of them, anyway. The officials in charge of the exhibition declined to comment for this story. As for those missing pieces, you can see the photos of them on the USGS website.

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FLINTOFF: The researchers who've uncovered the story this far say the rest of the mystery is free for anyone, amateur or professional, to try to solve. Who knows, it might be time to take a look in great-grandma's jewel case.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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