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‘An Act of Kindness’: Long-Lost Yugoslav Artworks Returned to Bosnia by Serbian Collector

A collection of artwork by a distinguished Yugoslav artist – lost in a town in northwest Serbia for 30 years after being looted during the Bosnian war – has been returned.

The man who met them in the 1990s recently decided to return them to the Jajce museum where they had been stolen at the height of the conflict.

In 1993, Stojan Matić, an art collector from Kovin, bought more than 30 portraits of Yugoslav partisan leaders and WWII fighters at a flea market in Vienna.

Some of them have been reprinted on everything from postage stamps to textbooks and engraved on the sides of buildings.

“It was late 1992 or early 1993, someone called me to our apartment in Vienna and told me that he had something very good to offer me, works by Bozidar Jakac, which had come from ‘coming from Jajce to Bosnia,’ he recalls. At that 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 bore the signature of the artist and the subject.

The most valuable paintings in the collection were those of World War II, made at a conference called by partisans in Central Bosnia in November 1943. Anti-fascist fighters trying to oust the Nazis and their collaborators gathered to plan their new country once the war is over.

Jakac, a Slovenian realist painter who was also part of the resistance, documented the expressions of the main leaders as they deliberated on the future of a liberated nation for their people.

One of the drawings is a famous portrait of the Partisan leader who would later become President of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, drawn in red chalk.

These coins had both monetary and sentimental value to collectors familiar with Yugoslav history, and Matic briefly considered the idea of ​​making a quick return on his investment.

“Some sort of tycoon, even if criminal would be a better word, wanted the portrait of Tito to bribe Mira Marković so that he could buy a shopping center in Serbia,” he recalls.

Mira Marković was the wife of Slobodan Milošević, then Serbian nationalist leader. Milošević is known regionally and internationally as the man whose policies 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 during a war would end up in the hands of those who caused the region’s second major war. known during the 20th century.

“When the bombing of Sarajevo started in 1992 and we watched the horrific scenes of Bosnia in 1992 and 1993, I told my wife we ​​had to return this,” he told Euronews.

As he pondered the correct way to return the stolen goods from the Jajce museum, thousands of people engulfed themselves in a war that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people in Bosnia alone.

“For me, the Bosnians were the greatest Yugoslavs. The various nationalisms in the region have torn their country apart, ”he underlines. “And the Bosnians have suffered the most in this war of aggression.”

In the end, it took him almost 30 years to figure out the right way to do it. Along the way, he brought in a renowned Bosnian actor, Emir Hadžihafizbegović.

The unlikely duo finally handed over 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 I wanted to make a big deal out of it, I would have sold it to the government of Serbia or allowed them to return the artwork and present themselves as great peacemakers – and wash their dirty hands of their participation in the war in Bosnia. “, explained Matić.

“I would probably get the media attention of all the major media outlets in the country. Except I didn’t want them to use it for a media stunt.

“Instead, I looked for someone across the Drina River and found Emir Hadžihafizbegović – an actor my sons are big fans of. I messaged him on Facebook, especially after seeing a government tabloid calling him hatred of Serbs, which is nonsense.

“I told him about the items I had, and told him that I had something stolen from your country which belongs to Bosnia.”

A popular portrait painter becomes guerrilla

The estimated market value of the collection today stands at around 90,000 euros, mainly due to the recent decline in popularity of Jakac with collectors.

However, the fact that the works of art were made during one of the most famous moments in Yugoslav history makes them much more attractive to collectors interested in WWII memorabilia, which could greatly increase the value of the collection.

And although Jakac is not particularly famous outside of the former Yugoslav zone, his work is by no means unimportant.

One of the main founders of the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana and organizer of the International Biennial of Graphic Arts in the Slovenian capital, Jakac’s keen interest in the avant-garde led him to incorporate elements of expressionism, realism and symbolism in his work.

He became a popular portrait painter, representing a number of prominent Yugoslavs, including King Peter II of Yugoslavia and Slovenian poet laureate, France Prešeren. He was also one of the pioneers of Slovenian cinema.

When WWII and the Nazi occupation forces reached the country of Southeastern Europe. The kingdom of Yugoslavia surrendered within two weeks, as the royal family fled the country to England and the disarticulated royal army, lacking leadership and discipline, surrendered to the German and Italian occupiers in April 1941.

Soon after, an anti-fascist guerrilla movement developed 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. A few months later, he received an invitation to be one of the Slovenian deputies at the Jajce conference.

There he spends the time between sessions drawing portraits of those who played the most important roles during the war and in the immediate post-war period 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 little hesitant at first.

“Sometimes very important things in life happen in very strange ways,” he told Euronews.

“Stojan wrote to me on Facebook to tell me that he was an antiques 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 them.

“It was a very brief message and at first I thought it was a long lost friend whose name I had forgotten, who was now pulling my leg.”

“So I hesitated at first and told him that I was working on a role for a movie and maybe we can get back in touch later. But then I felt 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 thirty or so drawings by Jakac that were stolen in late 1992, early 1993.”

The two decided that the only proper way to do it would be to return it on the anniversary of the 1943 session to which the museum where it was looted is dedicated. The pandemic has meant it took another two years to be able to deliver the originals in person.

“The transfer to Jajce was really emotional. Stojan was completely shaken by the location of the session and when he saw the hall where a country of 25 million people was conceived, this small building 25 meters long and perhaps 10 meters wide. .

After the war, the main hall of the looted and destroyed museum was painstakingly restored to its original 1943 appearance, complete with authentic portraits of Karl Marx and Winston Churchill, and the actual chairs that delegates used during the session.

“They let him sit in the real chair that Tito used, which they don’t do for ordinary tourists. Pijade’s chair is there too, as is Ribar’s.

But it’s more than just putting Jakac’s drawings back where they belong, Hadžihafizbegović said.

“I believe that in the future Europe and its union will be determined by its cultural identities. It is the only system of values ​​that will determine the value of a company.

Hadžihafizbegović said the two were now good friends and the story was so interesting that he wanted to make it into a feature film.

But future acts similar to Matić’s, where other stolen items would be returned to places looted by the Yugoslav wars, would mean more than any political agreement between the former warring parties, Hadžihafizbegović believes.

“Since this became public, I continue to receive messages from all sides – Serbs, Bosnians, Croats who are completely fascinated by this story. It is this basic human context that reaffirms the need for us to be close to one another.

“There is this last line in this piece that I love,“ The Spawning of Carp ”by Aleksandar Popović. “There are two kinds of people: those who are human and those who are not – all other divisions are wrong.” And Matić’s gesture is something that brings back hope that there are still good people left in this world we live in, as cliché as that sounds.

Matić hopes people in his home country are equally positive about his gesture, although nationalism continues to be high in the region and it could spark anger in more radical circles.

“I’m not afraid that someone will beat me or something will happen to me because of it,” he said.

“I think anti-war and pacifist Serbia warmly welcomes something like this, and would for other similar gestures.”

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