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posted: 8/12/2012 8:00 AM

Serbs hold up traveling art show at border

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  • "Mystic Landscape," by Rosana Azar was one of dozens of U.S. artworks seized in November 2011 by Serbian authorities, who held them for eight months.

    "Mystic Landscape," by Rosana Azar was one of dozens of U.S. artworks seized in November 2011 by Serbian authorities, who held them for eight months.
    Courtesy of Alex Gallery

Washington Post

Any U.S. gallery proprietor would be happy to have a show of his clients' work in Paris. But there was special cause for celebration when "6 American Artists" opened Thursday at Galerie Vieceli in the Marais district. The traveling exhibition includes 76 works that had been held by Serbian customs authorities for more than eight months.

The work was seized in November on the Serbian-Bulgarian-Romanian border, allegedly because it was improperly documented. The two men traveling with the art, artist David Suter and Washington-based gallery owner Victor Gaetan, were detained for three days, then released after paying a fine of more than $10,000. The 72 paintings and four sculptures were finally extricated July 27.

Five of the show's artists are from the Washington area: Suter, Rosana Azar, David Goslin, Judith Judy and Dee Levinson. The sixth artist, Marian Bingham, divides her time between Connecticut and France.

Gaetan credited Mary Warlick, U.S. ambassador to Serbia, and Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, among others, for getting the works returned.

"The ambassador herself and all the embassy staff have been very dedicated and very active on this issue. And the deputy secretary of state, too," Gaetan said by phone from Paris.

He noted that the order to release the art was given by the outgoing, pro-Western government. He said that the new coalition government -- headed by President Ivica Dacic, a former associate of Slobodan Milosevic's -- is less friendly to Americans.

Although happy at the outcome, Gaetan was still reeling from his last dealings with Serbian border agents. "It almost became a thriller," he said of his farewell visit to Serbia.

"The local customs agents, who were holding the artwork, sabotaged the government decree," the gallery owner charged. They claimed that the wording of the decree was not exactly right and needed to have one word changed before it was valid.

"All the people who were involved realized that they were buying time, hoping the outgoing government would finally be out," Gaetan said. "It would have been a very different story with the new government in place."

Almost a month after Serbian officials ordered the art returned, Gaetan was allowed to load the pieces into his car. But he was turned back from both Bulgarian and Romanian border stations when the agents read the Serbian-language document the customs agents had given him before he left the country.

According to Gaetan, Romanian border agents told him that the Serbian document said he was "a dangerous smuggler carrying invaluable suspicious pieces of artwork." They sent him back to Serbia, with instructions that he get papers to enter Romania at a larger, better-staffed crossing.

After an all-night, back-and-forth ordeal, Gaetan was eventually allowed into Romania through a larger border station. There, he said, agents told him that Serbian agents were angry at him because the case of the seized art had called Interpol's attention to that section of the border. Some Serbian customs agents, Gaetan said the Romanians told him, had been caught in a drug bust.

"In the end, I found understanding, and they said, 'Those Serbs at that border point really wanted to hurt you,'" Gaetan said.

The art was originally seized while the gallery owner was on his way to Bucharest from St. Tropez, where it had shown at another branch of Galerie Vieceli. The exhibition's next stop is Assisi, Italy, where it will be shown in November. Wherever it goes after that, Gaetan does not plan to take a route that leads through Serbia ever again.

"My one experience with Serbia will suffice for generations," he said.

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