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    Copyright: The following text is for personal information only. Any professional use or publication in written or electronic form is subject to an agreement with AIM, 17 rue Rebeval, F-75019 Paris, France

    WED, 08 FEB 1995 21:25:01 GMT

    Who in Serbia saved, looted or swapped works of art from the Croat territory


    AIM, Belgrade, February 5, 1995 An inspector from the European Union is coming to Belgrade. His task is to go through the catalogues and museum depots of Novi Sad and Belgrade in six days of February - to balance the list of works of arts, whose saving from the Serb controlled territories of Croatia was organized by the Serb state - with the list made by the state of Croatia containing 10 thousand objects which disappeared during the war. The announcements of his visit were accompanied by accusations from Zagreb that the Serb state had robbed Croatia, and by statements of the Serbian Assistant Minister of Culture, Rade Begenisic, who claimed that "they are accusing us of plunder, and we have in fact saved their works of art as well, and intend to return them". Which are "their" and which "our" works of art, remains unclarified. The Croat party believes that everything that used to be on its territory should be returned to it, and the Serb party is convinced that everything brought must be divided according to what is of Croat, and what is of Serb origin. Experts in Belgrade believe that there will not be major surprises, that the Serb policy will finally be able to prove to the inspector that nothing has been plundered.

    Everyone seems to have forgotten that works of art which have been brought, protected and stored in a museum depot are not disputable at all, but those that have not. Those which have been left with no control, at the mercy the people, blind with hatred, or plunderers of various paramilitary units.

    As the Army says

    Croatian authorities claim that 63 Catholic churches have been destroyed, and 500 monasteries heavily damaged. The Serb party counted 243 ruined churches. According to a rough estimate of experts, 70 per cent of cultural monuments and various places of worship do not exist in B&H any more. Destroyed and stolen paintings, icons, libraries - that is what it was like. There was an excess of bizarreness. Serb refugees accomodated in Muslim apartments in Grbavica, which is now in the Serb part of Sarajevo, brought out about a hundred paintings by the famous Mersad Berber and burned them at the stake. On the other hand, some ten Serb soldiers guarded day and night Mestrovic's marble monument, much more valuable than the casting in Zagreb, and begged for something to be done with it, because it had in fact "emprisoned them".

    Before the Catholic church in Lovinac in the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) was burned, a couple of Serb experts from Knin had tried to get through and save the valuable icons and the ancient stone fountain for holy water. Drunken Serb soldiers almost shot them for wishing "to save their churches, while they are burning ours". The team arrived one day too late and found just the melted church bells on the site of the fire. In a similar way the opportunity to save a valuable library in the Catholic church in Karin was missed. It burned to the ground.

    In the beginning of 1992, one of the mentioned enthusiasts, with a warrant issued by the government of the RSK, started by his own car to Petrinja and Kostajnica which were controlled by the Serbs, to try to save the archives. He was arrested in Vojnic by the president of the municipality and the commander of the military units, who made fun of him for being concerned about papers, and not about guns, at a time such as that. They forced him to return, and the Serb archives were destroyed. The Serb library in Drnis was completely looted, although guarded by the army of the RSK. In Gracac, a Serb town, the lady president of the municipalitu, who is by vocation a historian, ordered burning of archives, when there was no more wood left for fuel. In the Memorial Home of the Sixth Lika Brigade from the Second World War, in Plitvice, a significant number of paintings of famous Serb and Croat authors disappered, because the manager could not refuse "services" of Serb (para)soldiers, resolute to "preserve" the works of art.

    Until 1992, the Catholic church in Knin stood locked and untouched. Then it was broken into, burned, looted. Milan Radovanac, who is now a journalist for the news agency of the RSK "Iskra" in Belgrade, was present at the time in Knin and found cut out icons, everything broken, and valuable books scattered around and torn. He organized saving on several occasions, and transportation of what had been collected, but then another part was destroyed. At the time, a team from the Museum of Knin Krajina took out and registered about ten scultures and two paintings by Mestrovic from the demolished museum in Drnis. Three paintings were missing. According to one version, the stolen paintings were immediately sold to the Croats at the border, and according to another - they are in a private collection somewhere in Belgrade.

    Serb heritage on the territory controlled by the Croats was treated in an identical way. The icons, paintings and church objects from the episcopate Serb treasury in Pakrac were taken into the yard, broken and cut up. The most valuable national Serb library used to be in Pakrac, but the books were burned or scattered around. In Karlovac which is controlled by the Croats, the just renovated museum of Karlovac eparchy was levelled to the ground. And the archives in the same town experienced a sudden "revision", which was just another name for destruction of documents which could be harmful for the "owners" of the archives.

    How did it happen, at least when speaking of the Serb party, that vandalism towards the other party's heritage was simply legalized, when it is known that a Government Commission from Belgrade, headed by Nikola Kusovac, established back in 1991, was set the task to save works of art from the territory of Croatia controlled by the Serbs, with the assistance of the army, equipped with trucks and metal cases?

    First, according to the confession of Assistant Minister Begenisic, the operation started too late to save anything from the paramilitary troops which were in conflict.

    Second, Nikola Kusovac decided on site not to touch anything that was Croat, he refused to enter any Catholic church. "The Guradian" for instance, quotes his statement given at the time to TV Belgrade "that Croat and Catholic garbage should be left and destroyed". Today, this expert says for the AIM that he has never said anything of the sort, and that, even if he does not like Van Den Brooke, he still adores Rembrandt. He refers to the fact that the Croat authorities were the only ones who had complete records (just as Serb authorities have in Serbia), that he did not know where to look. There was no positive signals from the Croat side, so Kusovac believes that for everything that was destroyed, they were responsible. The only thing he did save are the holy relics of St. Bone found in the sacristy of the church in Vukovar, as well as parts of the large oltar, few paintings from the Bauer collection, and according to his knowledge, this is now stored in Museum depot of Novi Sad. "I did not touch Croat wealth, and today I wonder whether I should have saved that too."

    Jovan Despotovic, the former curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Belgrade, however, says that this is not a moral issue, but a legal one. The Hague Convention signed by Yugoslavia demands protection of works of art, regardless whose they are. He reminds that expert public in Belgrade, in 1992 reacted with bitterness when it learned that a selection was made on site and that only Serb works were saved, while the Croat were left unprotected. That is why, in the course of the second phase of rescuing, the Government Commission protected and transported to Belgrade everything it had found, and then divided it into Serb and Croat heritage. Assistant Serbian Minister of culture, Begenisic, says for the AIM: "We believe that we did it in a civilized manner, that we have rescued everything possible."

    All roads lead to Belgrade

    More than one third of galleries, churches, museums and private collections on the territory of Croatia has disappeared. What came under the control of the Serbs disappeared in several ways. Soldiers, in a private arrangement, "cleansed" the churches and households and tried immediately, on site, to find a discrete valuer, or a buyer for an icon, a candlestick or a painting. If they did not succeed, they hurried to Belgrade. Refugees brought their property and sold it in Belgrade for next to nothing, to sustain themselves (a woman from Sarajevo sold a painting by the prominent Paja Jovanovic for only 1,500 German marks). Laymen, civilians in their raid stole everything, from reproductions on wall calenders to real works of art. And finally, a lot was collected intentionally, in an organized manner, in various paramilitary posts. The natural destination of all was - Belgrade.

    That is how this city became in 1991 and 1992 a Mecca for selling stolen works of art. It was rarely done by galleryists, more frequently the candlesticks, icons and furniture could be found in hastily opened antique shops whose owners are even former investigators of the State security Service. And while the experienced galleryists and true collectors were aware that all great authors were registered somewhere and that in cannot be hidden in a long term, the "new Serb class" sprung up on smuggling and war profiteering, laymen but overwhelmingly rich, did not hesitate to buy. A new clique of "dealers" was thus born, which still forms the foundations of trade with artistic object in Belgrade. For a percentage for themselves and in the name of large "bosses" they offered works of Vlaho Bukovac or Mestrovic even. The job took place at secret auctions, or in personal contacts in private homes. They needed an expert for evaluation, however.

    Nikola Kusovac, the curator of the National Museum in Belgrade, the best name among valuators, says that on several occasions he recognized stolen "goods" among the paintings which were brought to him for evaluation. For example, a young Montenegrin brought him the paintings of the famous Celestin Medovic and Vlaho Bukovac, and Kusovac observed that they belonged to a collection looted near Kupari, close to Dubrovnik. Forgeries of Mersad Berber also came into his hands, and he also knows that quite a number of paintings by Ljubo Lah whose studio was robbed were sold for 100 German marks apiece. "I am not afraid of robbery, I am afraid of destruction. A stolen work of art will, by its natural ways, find a buyer and gravitate towards its homeland, it exists. I wish the Croat army had robbed, and not burned the uncommon specimen from our eparchy in Pakrac", Kusovac adds.

    Jovan Despotovic says that he was brought photos of various paintings and icons of Croat origin with the demand that he evaluate them. "About a hundred works of a painter, Afan, from Sarajevo circled the city. They were sold at 50 dinars apiece. Even works of Ibrahim Ljubovic appeared. I know that a student, a refugee from Sarajevo, offered her professor a "deal", and he offered it to a friend of his. The offer included works by Mersad Berber, Bukovac and Mestrovic. All the political parties in Serbia which had their armies and paramilitary units at the scene of the war, have their own depots. I think that a figure of 10 thousand works of art is not exaggerated, that this can be compared only with the devastation by the Germans in the Second World War - Jovan Despotovic concludes.

    The best known Belgrade galleryist, Ceda Edrenic, says that all kinds of things were offered him - from marketplace pictures to iron watches, but that he sent everything that he associated with the battlefield, with indignation, to Nikola Kusovac, who verifies that this is true. "I am not the right person to say what was happening with these works of art. Armed policemen stood on every crossroad at the entrance into our cities, they searched every bus, every man. At the scene of the war, each paramilitary unit and army had an officer standing behind it, and everything was to be handed over to him. Only they can know where such goods ended up. But the number of 10 thousand workd of art is absolutely exaggerated", Edrenic is convinced.

    The experts considered purchase of paintings by famous Croat artists dangerous, unreasonable and naive just at the very beginning. It proved that the members of the new class, wherever it may have sprung up from, may not have a feeling for arts, but they certainly have for profit. At this moment the business of so-called "exchange" which is bringing enormous profit is flourishing. For instance, if a Croat thief got hold of a painting by Sava Sumanovic and tried to sell it in Vienna, he could not get more than 5,000 German marks for it. In Belgrade, however, a rich Serb patriot will give as much as 25,000 marks for it, because it is "ours". Those who have bought a stolen Mestrovic in Serbia, cannot get more than 5,700 marks for it at the world market, but in Zagreb his work will be sold for 20,000 because it is "theirs".

    The work of art may not even be stolen. We learn that a collector from Belgrade tried to sell a painting of a famous Slovenian, Grohari, and he was getting 10 thousand marks for it. Then, via a dealers' channel, he sent the painting to Slovenia, where a man from Ljubljana gave 50,000 marks for it. A cultural ethnic cleansing is obviously at work, with the merchants going from home to home and buying cheaply Hegedusic or Bukovac. That is how sadly and finally the cultural blood type of the already dismembered Yugoslavia is sold out.

    Gordana Igric