A collection of works of art by a distinguished Yugoslav artist has been returned, lost in a city in northwestern Serbia for 30 years after being looted during the war in Bosnia.
The man who came across them in the 1990s recently decided to return them to the museum in Jajce, where they had been stolen at the height of the conflict.
In 1993, Stojan Matić, a Kovin art collector, purchased more than 30 portraits of Yugoslav partisan leaders and WWII fighters at a flea market in Vienna.
Some of them were reprinted on everything from postage stamps to school books and engraved on the sides of buildings.
“It was late 1992 or early 1993, someone called me at our apartment in Vienna and said that he had something very good to offer me, some works by Bozidar Jakac, which had just arrived from Jajce in Bosnia,” he recalls. At the time, the wars in Bosnia and Croatia were raging.
“The Vienna flea market has often stolen things from all over Europe.”
“When I got home and opened it, there were two portraits of Josip Broz Tito, a portrait of Ivan Ribar and a portrait of Edvard Kardelj. Each portrait had the artist’s signature and subject ”.
The most valuable paintings in the collection were from World War II, made during a conference called by the partisans in central Bosnia in November 1943. Anti-fascist fighters trying to drive out the Nazis and their collaborators met to plan their new country. once the war was over.
Jakac, a Slovenian realist painter who was also part of the resistance, documented the expressions of top leaders as they deliberated on the future of a free nation for his people.
One of the drawings is a famous portrait of the partisan leader who later became President of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, drawn in red chalk.
These pieces had both monetary and sentimental value to collectors familiar with the history of Yugoslavia, and Matic briefly considered putting a quick turn on his investment.
“Some kind of tycoon, although criminal would be a better term, he wanted the portrait of Tito to bribe Mira Marković so that he could buy a shopping center in Serbia,” he recalled.
Mira Marković was the wife of Slobodan Milošević, the nationalist leader of Serbia at the time. Milošević is known regionally and internationally as the man whose politics sparked the bloody war that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
Had he sold the painting to Marković’s friend, the portraits of leaders fighting for the liberation of oppressed Balkan nations in a war would end up in the hands of those who caused the second great war the region had seen in the 20th century.
“When the Sarajevo bombing started in 1992 and we saw the horrible scenes in Bosnia in 1992 and 1993, I told my wife that we had to return this,” he told Euronews.
As I pondered the correct way to return stolen property to the Jajce museum, thousands of people were caught up in a war that claimed more than 100,000 lives in Bosnia alone.
“For me, the Bosnians were the greatest Yugoslavs. The various nationalisms of the region tore his country apart, ”he emphasizes. “And the Bosnians suffered the most in that aggressive war.”
In the end, it took him almost 30 years to find the right way to do it. Along the way, he enlisted the help of a renowned Bosnian actor, Emir Hadžihafizbegović.
The unlikely duo finally delivered the priceless historical artifacts to the museum director on November 29, the day of the main session in Jajce and, more importantly, Yugoslavia’s main national holiday, Republic Day.
“If he had wanted to do a big business, he would have sold it to the Serbian government or allowed them to return the artwork and present themselves as great peacekeepers, and wash their dirty hands for their involvement in the war in Bosnia. ”Matić explained.
“It would probably get the media attention of all the major media outlets in the country. Except I didn’t want them to use this for a media stunt. “
“So I looked for someone on the other side of the Drina river and I found Emir Hadžihafizbegović, an actor that my children are huge fans of. I messaged him on Facebook, especially after I saw a government tabloid call him he hates Serbian, which is absurd. “
“I told him about the artifacts I had and told him that they stole something from me from his country that belongs to Bosnia.”
The popular portraitist becomes a guerrilla
The estimated market value of the collection is currently around 90,000 euros, mainly due to the recent decline in popularity of Jakac with collectors.
However, the fact that the artworks were made during one of the most celebrated moments in Yugoslavia’s history makes them much more attractive to collectors interested in World War II memorabilia, for example, which could greatly increase the value of the collection.
And while Jakac is not particularly famous outside of the former Yugoslav zone, his work is not unimportant.
One of the key founders of the Ljubljana Academy of Fine Arts and the organizer of the International Biennial of Graphic Art in the Slovenian capital, Jakac’s keen interest in the avant-garde saw him incorporate elements of expressionism, realism, and symbolism into his work.
He became a popular portraitist, representing several prominent Yugoslavs, including King Pedro II of Yugoslavia and the Slovenian poet laureate France Prešeren. He was also one of the pioneers of Slovenian cinema.
When World War II and the Nazi occupation forces arrived in the southeastern European country. The kingdom of Yugoslavia capitulated in two weeks, when the royal family fled the country to England and the dismantled royal army, lacking leadership and discipline, surrendered to the German and Italian occupiers in April 1941.
Soon after, an anti-fascist guerrilla movement emerged across the country, led by Tito.
Jakac joined the partisan resistance in 1943 and spent his time in the unit describing the events of the war. Within a couple of months, he received an invitation to be one of the Slovenian MPs at Jajce’s conference.
There, he spent time between sessions drawing portraits of those who played the most important roles during the war and in the immediate postwar future of Yugoslavia, such as Moše Pijade, Edvard Kardelj or Ivan Ribar.
Sitting in Tito’s chair
Emir Hadžihafizbegović said that when he received a message from a certain Stojan Matić in 2019, he was a bit hesitant at first.
“Sometimes really important things happen in life in very strange ways,” he told Euronews.
“Stojan wrote to me on Facebook to tell me that he was an antique collector and that several years ago he came across some very valuable documents that are part of the Bosnian national treasure and that he would like to return it.”
“It was a very short message and at first I thought he was a long-lost friend whose name I forgot, who was now teasing me.”
“So I was hesitant at first and told him that I was working on a role for a movie and maybe we can get in touch later. But then I felt really bad about the message and its tone, so I said, if you really have something of such value, I would be happy to pay for your trip to Sarajevo, “he explained.
“We went to dinner and that’s when he showed me the 30 Jakac drawings that were stolen in late 1992, early 1993.”
The two decided that the only proper way to do so would be to return it on the anniversary of the 1943 session to which the museum to which it was looted is dedicated. The pandemic meant it took another two years for the originals to be delivered in person.
“The transfer in Jajce was really emotional. Stojan was completely shocked by the place where the session took place and when he saw the room where a country of 25 million people was conceived, this small building 25 meters long and maybe 10 meters wide ”.
After the war, the looted and vandalized main hall of the museum was carefully restored to its original 1943 appearance, with authentic portraits of the likes of Karl Marx and Winston Churchill, and the royal chairs that the delegates used during the session.
“They let him sit in the chair Tito used, which they don’t do with average tourists. Pijade’s chair is also there, as well as Ribar’s ”.
But it is much more than putting Jakac’s drawings back where they belong, Hadžihafizbegović said.
“I believe that in the future, Europe and its union will be determined by their cultural identities. It is the only value system that will determine the value of a society. “
Hadžihafizbegović said that the two are now good friends and that the story was so interesting that he wants to turn it into a feature film.
But future acts similar to Matić’s, where other stolen artifacts would be returned from locations looted by the Yugoslav wars, would mean more than any political settlement between former belligerents in the war, Hadžihafizbegović believes.
“Since this became public, I keep getting messages from all sides: Serbs, Bosnians, Croats who are completely fascinated with this story. It is this elemental human context that is reaffirming the need for us to be close to each other. “
“There is this last line in this work that I love, ‘The Spawning of Carp’ by Aleksandar Popović. “There are two types of people: those who are human and those who are not; all other divisions are false.” And Matić’s gesture is something that restores hope that there are good people left in this world we live in, as cliché as it may sound. “
Matić hopes that people in his home country will be equally positive about his gesture, although nationalism remains high in the region and this could provoke anger in more radical circles.
“I’m not afraid that someone will hit me or something will happen to me because of this,” he said.
“I think that pacifist pacifist Serbia warmly welcomes something like this, and would do so by other similar gestures.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism