Artist Detained in Serbia; Doesn’t Know Why

Illustrator and artist David Suter, who is currently having a solo exhibit in Washington, D.C., was detained by police in Serbia after attempting to transport artwork displayed a group show from the south of France to Romania. All the works have been confiscated awaiting adjudication.

According to the Washington Post, Suter and his gallery owner Victor Gaetan (Gallery A and Alex Gallery), were freed after a weekend under “police supervision.” They were detained as they attempted to cross into Romania on their way to a show there. Border agents seized 68 paintings and four sculptures (credits below) by Suter and four other artists.

“The men were taking the pieces by car from St. Tropez,” notes the Washington Post, “where they had been exhibited in August, to an upcoming show in Bucharest that has to be canceled, Gaetan said. They were waved into the country without formalities, but when they tried to leave, “We were told, ‘Okay, you’re in big trouble, because you didn’t complete a form for transit.’”

Earlier this year Serbian police recoverd two stolen Picasso paintings from a museum in Switzerland. Was this connected? I recently, spoke to Suter, who is still in Europe waiting for a disposition in this case:

Why were you traveling across national boarders with all this artwork? I formed an association with a prominent gallery in DC (I have been camping out there for the year). At the moment I have a large show until the end of December there. At the same time, the owner Victor Gaetan had planned a travelling show to start in St Tropez and proceed through a number of cities, including Paris, Bucharest, and some others. The show consists of works by five americans: Myself, Judith Judy, David Goslin, Marian Bingham and Rossanna Azar, an Argentinian painter.

To take the work from the Nice, France-area where it was stored we borrowed the French galleries owner’s minivan to take us to Bucharest and back, loaded it with all the works and travelled through France, northern Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and then into Serbia to the Serbian border with Romania, where we were stopped at the rural checkpoint.

Why, in fact, were you stopped and what was the rationale for confiscating the work? I think I can say that we don’t really know precisely why we were stopped. Entering Serbia we were waved through cursorily, with no inspection or demand for manifests, etc; this forms part of the argument for an entrapment of sorts. The official rational as described (through interpretor) by the lower court judge involved failure to have a certain form (Victor had with us  a pictorial manifest w lists of all works, with photos of each, artists names etc, as well as newly printed catalogues fior each artist, websites showing the planned exhibit, and so forth).

During our “interview” with the customs officer (while all the work was being carted in and unwrapped and inspected etc) he quietly asserted (or, insinuated given the alarming atmosphere) that it would go better for us to find a low evaluation for the work, in that, the judge would not only confiscate everything, but demand a fine be paid immediately to the tune of up to four times the value of the goods he described as being “smuggled”. Thus, we each were imagining a fine on the order of perhaps in the 100’s of thousands. And, it was soon, stated by the judge, the failure tio pay such a fine would  require imprisonment for 60 days.

You can imagine the coercive atmosphere attending these statements. The confiscation itself was stated as a kind of routine punishment, without reference to the property, indeed the very creation, of the traveler himself.

How come, once it was established that you are bonafide artists and this is a bonfide exhibit, you are still libel to such penalties? I Don’t know; it seemed vastly out of proportion, in contradiction of some kind of human right (though I don’t know what exactly), gratuitously punitive, bizaare, kangaroolike, Kafkaesque, and cruel….not to mention impolite undiplomatic and, frankly, stupid….or, one might also think, a matter of desperate state economics.

The judge by the way, was about twenty five years old, seemed extremely nervous and, when for some reason I shook his hand, was sweating profusely.

What will happen to the confiscated art? I don’t know that either. There were four paintings and four sculptures in the travelling exhibit. A couple of the pieces are personally irreplaceable. One scary element was the way the customs official expressed a seemingly sincere appreciation for the works, almost as though he would like to to “have” it himself. I did a bunch of “protest” work to fill the empty gallery in Bucharest.

(Sculptures from above to below bottom: 2nd Story, Running Man, 3rd Horse, Annunciation; all 2010.)

Here is part of Suter’s exhibit currently in the Alex Galleries.

David Suter

Daily Heller David Suter

David Suter

11 thoughts on “Artist Detained in Serbia; Doesn’t Know Why

  1. Mark

    Dear mister,
    I have just read your post and I can say only sorry for what happened, and you should use all legal ways to ask for your money back or so… But saying at the end that you will never come again and advise other people the same is not good. What about all other people there who are normal and would always be on your side? Do you think that if somebody from EU has any kind of issue in USA should say to his people, his family not to go there anymore.. I think that is wrong approach… Because of one incident and a couple of stupid people in the police you decided to say something like that.. Even Serbia is more or less normal country especially with normal people there.. Everywhere you will find people who like troubles.. Thanks and good bye.

  2. alex salivan

    I would be suspicious too of someone travelling like that with a whole bunch of artwork to Romania. It sounds like a good movie… The police is probably on the lookout after recovering two stolen Picasso paintings and Davind probably had no legitimate paper work.

  3. Rachel F

    In response to David’s curiosity about anguish over loss of a creative work:
    I work professionally in graphic design and that keeps me tethered to my mouse and computer most days. But I felt a deep sense of loss earlier this year after participating in a public collage-making event. I hadn’t worked on anything tactile in years, and this event opened up the createive flood gates for me. In one hour I produced a series of four 16×16″ collages that I honestly felt represented some of the most interesting work I’d ever produced.
    The event organizer collected our pieces after the hour-long open workshop to scan or photograph for inclusion in a hastily pulled together “magazine” of sorts. Despites several attempts to meet with the organizer and reclaim my collages, I’ve never seen them again. I grieved over the loss for a couple of months, and continue to regret leaving the work with the event organizer.
    I hope that David’s situation with the Serbs is resolved swiftly and justly, and that his work is returned to him.

  4. Mindy A

    It hurts to learn of this terrible news and that David had to go through this unexpected experience. I really hope David gets all of his confiscated work back! 

  5. Steven Heller Post author

    I received this from David Suter:
    The artist Rosanne Azar is not actually Argentinian but an American citizen with Argentinian ” roots”; I got that wrong in my haste, and it does bear on our assertion that this show was specifically to feature US artists.Looking over my comments I also notice in my fury I really laid on some strong epithets about the Serbian authorities; but in obvious  point of fact, travelling without correct papers (which in this case was amplified hugely, apparently, by the simple fact that  Serbia, unlike the other countries we had traversed, is not in the EU) is a terrible mistake generally, and we should acknowledge our own error to that degree, although at the same time the punishment scheme  still seems absolutely disproportionate in terms of intention.

    Jane Kallir did a little research for me on this and confirms that we were perhaps  lucky (or unlucky) not to have been stopped earlier on the trip.

    Lastly, in all this I have come up with some odd observations….You know, for twenty or thirty years I drew pictures describing  and commenting on political crises and contradictions; and yet it now seems , ironically,  that only when I finally somewhat  “retired” from that world, that my “personal”,  non-political work somehow got embroiled in a geopolitical whirlpool of almost inconceivable complexity and  ideological conflict…And secondly, this experience gave me, perhaps for the first time, a sense of what David Smith meant when he said “does the onlooker realize  the amount of affection that goes into a work of art- the intense affection…?”

      I know I always felt this, but it was a largely dormant  emotion until those guys – those border guards and the Serbian judge – announced dispassionately that” the “goods” will be confiscated. The feeling, to an artist, to someone who may have spent months or years on a work, and for whom the work may in some way express an aspect or kernel of humanity, seems a shadowy presentiment or tiny reflection, perhaps, even  of the fear and  pain a parent might feel when a child is possibly lost…..or some other element of life is lost.

    I would be curious to know if other artists have felt or expressed  that kind of pain….obviously, it is a miniature emotion along the scale of human suffering- but a special  type of grief nonetheless.

  6. Susan

    Thanks for bringing this outrageous incident to our attention. Is there an international organization for the protection of artists whose rights are violated, an organization like PEN? Anyone who reads this, please advise. Thanks

  7. Deborah Budd

    Sounds like the equivalent of an American small-town speed trap. Maybe it’s a symptom of the staggering Euro economy, or maybe this is just business as usual for Serbia. Either way, hope the artworks are returned and the fines dropped. It would be truly sad if international traveling exhibits were halted because of incidents such as this.