The Swedish National Museum in Stockholm. File photo: Guillaume Baviere/Flikr
The collection was pieced together by two brothers, sent to what was then Constantinople to represent Sweden. It includes portraits from the Ottoman court but also of landscapes, and was kept by the Celsing family in latter years at Biby Manour near Eskilstuna, in central Sweden.
"The collection is unique because it has been kept intact and because these paintings were produced for Westerners, when tradition in what is now Istanbul and some interpretations of Islam forbid the depiction of living things," Swedish art historian Anders Bengtsson at the National Museum (Nationalmuseet) in Stockholm told The Local.
Bengtsson said estimates of the collection's value varied, but the probate valued the artwork to 100 million kronor ($15 million) in total.
The National Museum and the National Heritage Board (Riksantikvariatämbetet) both protested, however, that the collection had unique cultural value and should not be allowed to leave Sweden. "The National Museum looks at many applications to take art out of the country every year, and generally we allow it," Bengtsson said. "But those artifacts that we say no to are in general foreign artworks that have been in Sweden a long time and become a part of Sweden's cultural heritage."
On October 25th, however, Sweden's Supreme Administrative Court (Högsta förvaltningsdomstolen) stated it would not consider the museum's appeal against a lower court's ruling that allowed the Celsing heir to ship the paintings out of the country.
"We've run out of appeals," Bengtsson said, citing his fear that the collection be auctioned off canvas by canvas. The heir's lawyer in Sweden did not respond to an interview request by The Local.
In the past, the Swedish fideikommis law helped keep a number of significant art collections intact, Bengtsson explained. It allowed certain families to circumnavigate inheritance law – allowing land and possessions to stay with one principal heir rather than be splintered among siblings as normal inheritance law dictates.
Since fideikommis was amended, an appointed heir can only take charge of half of the inheritance. The current heir to the Ottoman art collection, however, has issued what in layman's terms would be IOUs to his siblings and by so doing wields control over the collection's fate.
He has signaled his intention to sell the art with the help of auction house Sotheby's in London.
While the National Museum would have considered allowing the collection to leave the country for a foreign public institution, splitting up the collection was problematic, Bengtsson maintained.
"With Sotheby's we have no control over where the art goes, but with a public institution we would know that the collection was still available to the public and to researchers," Bengtsson told The Local. "In principle, they can now do what the want with it."