The mystery of Karlskrona’s da Vinci

Southern Sweden could soon be home to what its owners claim will be one of northern Europe's finest museums of Renaissance art. So why is it resolutely ignored by the art establishment? Paul O'Mahony investigates.

The city of Karlskrona on Sweden’s south-eastern tip is home to a mystery that has remained unsolved for more than a decade: Why has Sweden’s art establishment chosen to ignore a seemingly mouth-watering private art collection?

Leading experts from the art world have corroborated claims by a pair of aristocratic Bosnian brothers that their collection includes works of major artistic importance.

However, the notion that a major da Vinci might grace the walls of a little known provincial museum has proved too much for some critics to stomach.

Some have said that the painting on display in Karlskrona does indeed date back to the Renaissance but is probably the work of a pupil of da Vinci’s. Others have just laughed out loud.

But what of the rest of the collection – the purported works by Caravaggio, Fragonard, Van Gogh, Brueghel and Picasso, the Mayan sculptures and the Song dynasty porcelain?

Rizah and Senad Kulenovic believe strongly in its authenticity and are currently hatching plans to establish the city of Karlskrona as a vital stop-off point for art enthusiasts the world over.

The fortified city of Karlskrona – constructed at the end of the 17th century to allow the Royal Navy unhindered access to the Baltic Sea – is the jewel of the south-east of Sweden.

But while the UNESCO World Heritage Site may boast some outstanding architecture, its cultural output is less than world class. Rizah and Senad Kulenovic hope to change all that.

The brothers recently splashed out 800,000 kronor ($112,000) on wrenching from the the city council a piece of prime real estate on Karlskrona’s monumental Great Square.

The Water Castle – a reservoir constructed in 1863 in the French Norman style – once provided inhabitants of the city with a reliable supply of drinking water.

In recent years however the reservoir has fallen into disrepair; it lacks sufficient insulation, running water or a sewage system.

The Kulenovic brothers however have already begun work converting the Water Castle into a major tourist attraction.

Projects in the pipeline for the new venue include exhibitions of internationally renowned artists, concert performances and the opening of an outdoorcafé.

The story of Rizah Kulenovic’s arrival on Swedish shores stretches back thirty years.

Though he may have had good reason to flee Tito’s Yugoslavia, the decision to choose Sweden is as mysterious as the relative anonymity of his art collection.

“It was destiny, my friend,” he tells The Local.

Soon he met his future wife and put down roots in the southern part of the country.

Then, fifteen years ago, he received notification that he was to be entrusted with the family art collection, of which he knew little at the time. His investigations soon revealed an intriguing background.

The Kulenovic family traces its heritage back to 15th century Venice. Successive generations of artists, scientists and humanists gradually built up a very substantial art collection, not all of which survived.

“We know that some pieces were stolen from an international exhibition in Budapest in 1905. More disappeared during the Soviet years,” says Rizah Kulenovic.

The family deposited the artworks in secure vaults in various European cities. There they remained until Rizah Kulenovic got the letter stating that the family treasure was to be placed in his care.

Having brought together the collection’s disparate strands, Kulenovic soon believed himself to have made an astonishing discovery: one of the paintings was identifiable as The Nativity, a missing work by Leonardo da Vinci.

“There are many da Vinci paintings not yet found. This one was missing for 500 years but now it is here,” he says.

Following the discovery, Rizah Kulenovic set about opening a museum. The result of his labour was the Museum Lionardo da Vinci Ideal, which opened its doors more than a decade ago.

But the museum has remained relatively obscure since the authenticity of its most central work was called into question in the mid-1990s.

The controversy meant that Rizah Kulenovic was forced to open the museum without the local government funding for which he had hoped.

While undoubtedly a setback, the blow was softened somewhat by the proximity of his brother.

Many years after his Rizah’s arrival, Senad Kulenovic too made his way to Karlskrona, where he currently runs the popular Restaurant Montmartre.

“It’s good to be working, and it’s somewhere for us to drink a coffee or a cappuccino,” says Rizah Kulenovic, who has never doubted that the painting in his possession is a genuine da Vinci masterpiece.

As an artist himself, Rizah Kulenovic is a keen student of theories of human movement in the works of Leonardo da Vinci. In his opinion, there is simply no other artist capable of the techniques evident in the Karlskrona painting.

“There are sketches for this painting in many places – in the Louvre and in America – but this is the original,” he says.

In the mid-1990s, two leading art experts travelled to Malmö to look at the painting first hand. Both left with the view that it was most likely the work of one of da Vinci’s pupils rather than the master himself.

“Ah, the experts! Come see it with your own eyes. It is like the difference between seeing God and not seeing God,” says Kulenovic.

One of those who travelled to Malmö was Bo Ossian Lindberg, professor emeritus at Turku University in Finland.

“It was not by Leonardo. The type of Madonna in the painting was quite similar to a Leonardo. Both Carlo Pedretti and I agreed that it was a painting from the early 16th century, probably the work of one of Leonardo’s pupils,” Lindberg tells The Local.

As for the rest of the collection, Lindberg was quite impressed.

“Only a few works were on display, but they were interesting paintings. The collection is quite good,” he says.

But Kulenovic will not be swayed. As far as he is concerned – and as the name of his museum suggests – Karlskrona is home to a major work by da Vinci.

Another person with great belief in the potential of the new museum is Hans-Fredrik Samuelsson, a former UN diplomat and the project’s main spokesman.

On returning to Karlskrona after 25 years abroad, Samuelsson became intrigued by the Kulenovic collection and has long argued that it deserves pride of place in the city.

“The museum’s move to the Water Castle will signal a new era in Karlskrona’s development,” Samuelsson tells The Local.

He too is dismissive of any attempts to cast doubt on the collection’s authenticity. Both Samuelsson and Rizah Kulenovic take as an example The Stolen Kiss, a painting by the influential eighteenth century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Samuelsson and Kulenovic both assure The Local that the original is to be found not at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg but at the Museum Lionardo da Vinci Ideale in Karlskrona.

But a spokeswoman for Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, argues that it is “absolutely out of the question” that the museum would display anything other than the original.

“This painting in Sweden is such a bad copy that you can tell just by looking at the museum’s website.

“It is also a much later copy, and a very bad one at that,” she tells The Local.

Rizah Kulenovic however is defiant.

“It’s always like this in the art world. But my painting is signed by Fragonard.

“The art expert Alexandre Ananoff wrote a letter to me in 1988 confirming that mine was the original. He also mentioned that the Hermitage painting was a copy in a small book that accompanied an exhibition of French painting at the National Gallery in London,” he says.

Kulenovic also reminds us that his collection consists of more than just paintings.

“Just recently the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul wrote to me about a unique piece in my ceramics collection,” he says.

Soon art connoisseurs will be able to judge for themselves, with the new museum expected to open its doors next spring.