CINS: Customs at Belgarde airport caught SNS official in smuggling painting

nikola kovačević goran vesić paja jovanović beoinfo uprava carina
Source: Beoinfo/Uprava carina (Nikola Kovačević u društvu Gorana Vesića i slika "Stražar" Paje Jovanovića)

Coming back from Vienna, Belgrade city official was caught smuggling a famous painting worth some 140,000 euros, Serbia's Centre for Investigative Journalism (CINS) said on Tuesday.

CINS named the official as Nikola Kovacevic after the initial news said a mysterious passenger was stopped at the ‘nothing to declare’ exit at the City’s ‘Nikola Tesla’ airport with the famous ‘Guardian’ paintings by Paja Jovanovic (1857-1959), a world-known painter and portraitist.

After the customs discovered the undeclared painting, Kovacevic said he thought such items were not subject to taxation, adding he did not try to hide the painting but wanted to ask the officer what to do with a cultural heritage.

paja jovanović stražar uprava carina
Uprava carina

„It’s like when you come to Egypt with parts of a pyramid and say ‘my dear country, here I bring pyramid’s part from abroad,“ Kovacevic told CINS.

He has been a City and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) official since 2012, when the SNS took power.

Besides the painting, Kovacevic carried 15,000 euros in cash and his wife’s authorisation, saying he bought the painting with money from her account.

Serbia’s law allows up to 10,000 euros in cash to be taken into the country, so the customs seized 5,550 euros and Jovanovic’s „The Guard“ until the case was resolved.
However, a day after the seizure, the Belgrade Mayor Deputy Goran Vesic said the painting would be in the City Museum.

A month before it, ‘Guardian“ was offered at auction at the Vienna Doroteum auction house Doroteum. After the seizure, Vesic said the City was also interested in buying it but did not publish the intention to prevent the price from rising.

„That’s why I asked a western company that operates in Belgrade to buy a painting and donate it to the Museum of the City of Belgrade. The company was ready to set aside up to 50,000 euros for it,“ Vesic wrote on his Facebook profile.

Kovacevic told CINS Vesic spoke about the Austrian company Strabag, adding he did not buy the painting for the City.

He said he did not know whether Vesic was informed who bought the painting.

When asked why he did not tell Vesic about it, Kovacevic said: „Would you tell each of your colleagues something that happened to you?“ Well, not to everyone.“

Nemanja Nenadic of Transparency Serbia saw the whole thing as „odd.“

He added that an investigation should establish whether there was a deal between Kovacevic and the City authorities to buy the painting and get a refund.

Nenadic also said the next step should be for the Agency for Prevention of Corruption to investigate Kovacevic’s finances and his property card.