Artist Detained in Serbia; Doesn’t Know Why

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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