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Although the law now allows Serbs to request the return of property confiscated by the Communists, their chances of getting back any of their long-lost paintings remain minimal.
|An Exhibition in Konak Knjeginje Ljubice from 2010. | Photo Courtesy of Network for restitution website|
“Everything changed overnight in faraway 1949,” recalls Maja Matic, a pensioner born into the elite society of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
“After the war we lost everything,” she adds. “Instead of happiness and joy we became frightened. Seventeen unknown people moved in our house and took away our home, and from that day on we often went hungry,” Matic adds with a sigh.
Today she survives on a modest pension in an adapted cellar of a family home that used to be a gathering place for the Royal suite.
Speaking calmly but pensively about her grim memories, she says she still misses the things they took from her, both her family homes and the artworks that once decorated them: mostly paintings by Uros Predic, a family friend.
Having this in mind, one might think she would now be contemplating using Serbia’s newly adopted legislation on post-war confiscation to seek their return.
But she is not. Mainly because she cannot provide the documentation necessary for a restitution request for her lost paintings, she is only seeking the return of the houses and apartments taken from her family.
There is simply no way to prove that she is the rightful owner of the lost artworks that “might now be who knows where,” she says.
Even if she changes her mind and collects the requisite documents, there is no guarantee that the art will be returned.
The Agency for Restitution says such works may now be in public institutions, museums and other cultural institutions.
If so, even if their owners appear, they will only be compensated with money instead of the actual artworks.
The end of the Second World War brought an era of Soviet-style Communism to Yugoslavia.
The new authorities under Josip Broz Tito abolished the monarchy, banned alternative political parties and proclaimed a new classless society.
They started imposing their vision of social justice by proclaiming all property to be socially or state-owned.
After the regime confiscated all the royal property and lands, the private property of ordinary citizens was next in line.
After the fall of Communism, and especially after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in 2000, dreams of regaining their lost property became more of a realistic ambition for many people.
Although restitution of seized assets was then announced as a goal, action gained momentum only recently.
After more than a decade of discussion, Serbia’s parliament finally adopted a law on returning confiscated property and compensation on September 26, 2011.
The law established a restitution agency, which took over jurisdiction from the former Directorate for Restitution, founded in 2006 to deal with church property alone.
The agency started working in March this year and has since begun returning seized property to those who can prove their right to it. But artworks aren’t mentioned in this process.
Meanwhile, people like Maja Matic, who were children at the time of the seizures, have only distant memories of these artworks, or remember family stories about them.
“We used to have valuable works of art; antiquities… a great deal of the paintings were gifts of Uros Predic who was a family friend,” says Matic who is now 74.
|Maja Matic | Photo byTanja Vrećo and S media portal|
“I have only two portraits left, of my mother and one of my grandfather, painted by Predic, and one print he gave us, although that was first intended for a monastery in Becej.”
She has little hope that she will ever see the rest ever again.
“I cannot ask for anything that was seized because I don’t have the necessary documentation. I don’t know what happened with the certificates, and, trust me, both of my parents didn’t think out that at the time. We were fighting for survival.”
The president of Vojvodina’s Association of Citizens for Restitution, Nikola Tanurdzic, gives legal advice to people on restitution matters.
He says the process of gathering documentation is the most problematic issue for people seeking their assets back.
“Documentation is required to prove ownership. When everybody started to speak about restitution 20 years ago, we urged people to begin collecting documents, but some of them still don’t understand that without papers they can’t request anything,” Tanurdzic says.
“Restitution of art belongs under restitution of movable objects. By law, the state will return only those works that are filed in the registry, where it is possible to follow the course of ownership,” adds lawyer Marko Perovic.
“Such registers exist, but the former owner who has no proof will not be able to reclaim the property and his request will be rejected,” he explains.
“A request for return of property must contain evidence of the legal right of the former owner and information of his ownership right and proof that he/she is the legal heir.”
One painting returned:
|The portrait of [scientist Mihajlo] Pupin was bequeathed to the church before World War II | Photo courtesy of Kovacica tourist organization|
So far, only one art painting has been returned to a former owner. This happened in 2009, in the first round of restitution, related to church property.
The parish of Idvor then reclaimed a painting that until then had been in the possession of the local community.
Fr Petar Ilic told Balkan Insight that the painting, also by Uros Predic, was taken from the church in the Seventies.
“The portrait of [scientist Mihajlo] Pupin was bequeathed to the church before World War II,” he recalls.
“When we had heard about the possibility of restitution we tried to collect the necessary documentation,” he says.
He explained that the clergy obtained all of the necessary papers from a provincial office, proving that the parish of Idvor was the rightful owner of the portrait.
“After handing over the documents we were invited to a public hearing with an attorney in the municipality of Kovacica and when we again reviewed the documentation the process was completed,” he continues.
“I would advise everyone to try to get back their works of art now, because if they don’t, they won’t have another chance later on.”
Much information missing:
In the meantime, even if requests including complete documentation appear, it’s open to question whether the owners will get back their artworks.
In theory, former owners will be eligible for compensation, where possible, financially, through government bonds.
These have a total value of 200 billion dinars (about 2 billion euro) and will be issued for this purpose at the end of 2014.
But artworks now deemed to be an integral part of the collections of museums and galleries, or other similar institutions, will not be returned, the restitution agency warns.
A large number of artworks are located in Palace of Serbia, the building of the Serbian government in Belgrade’s Nemanjina Street.
Others adorn the parliament building and the National Bank. But no hard information is available about whether citizens may realistically demand some of them back.
The authorities say they can answer this only if and when valid requests for them reach the Agency for Restitution.
“The agency keeps records of art works in state ownership, but we do not know if some of these were confiscated and so transferred into state ownership," Nebojsa Keseljevic told Balkan Insight.
Even the State Directorate for Property has no accurate information of how many confiscated works of art now lie in government facilities or public institutions.
“Having examined the register of declared seized property, it was determined that 122 applications contain art pieces taken from their owners after the war, but without any specifications delivered,” Mirjana Ristic Velickovic, from the Directorate, says.
According to Velickovic, the Directorate is awaiting receipt of the relevant documentation from the restitution agency, and will then make an analysis of whether, or what, artworks are in state facilities.
Restitution claims may be submitted until March 2014. If, after this two-year period, owners do not submit the documentation and request restitution, they lose all right to reclaiming their assets.
Matic is not going to bother. “Long ago I reconciled myself to the fact that our cultural treasure disappeared. Only memories remain,” she says.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.
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