Serb war booty found hidden in castle

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OVER a flask of red wine, Budomir Milojko had been lecturing us on the Serbian love of culture, when we asked him, quite casually, what happened to the missing paintings and sculptures of Ivan Mestrovic. A cache of important works by one of old Yugoslavia's finest modern artists had vanished without trace - until last week.

We were sitting in the cafe of the 13th-century castle of Knin, the railway town that local Serbs call the capital of their 'Serb Krajina Republic'. And it was to this Ruritanian metropolis that the Croatians suspected the Serbs had taken the seven paintings and 24 sculptures, including some of the finest works of the artist described by Rodin as 'the greatest phenomenon among sculptors'.

Born in Croatian Slavonia in 1883, Mestrovic evoked Slav peasant life in a brilliant series of oils and bronze and marble sculptures. He exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was elected a member of the American Academy of Sciences.

Interpol has been collaborating with the Croatians in the search for the masterpieces, which disappeared from the museum at Drnis when fighting between Serbs and Croats broke out there in 1991. The MuseumDocumentation Centre at Zagreb claims that many of the paintings were stolen by the Serbs and sold on the international art market, and that the sculptures had fallen into the hands of the Serbian forces. But no one knew for certain what happened to the contents of the Drnis Museum - until, that is, we asked Milojko about them.

'Most of the Mestrovic work from the museum is safe,' he said. Then, with a mischievous smile, he added: 'They are not very far away from you at this moment.' With that, he led us out of the cafe, along the wind-thrashed ramparts of the castle, with its breathtaking views of the Krajina mountains, and down to a basement. 'Now you will see one of the Mestrovic paintings and most of the museum sculpture,' Milojko said as he fumbled in the darkness for the generator switch.

When the light came on, there, in two small rooms, we saw the works of Mestrovic. Sculptured self-portraits, busts, museum archives and one great oil on canvas were stacked on tiny wooden shelves, along with catalogues and old wartime photographs of Tito's partisans. They were not stored in any order, but were undamaged and clearly much loved by Milojko who, as well as being the castle caretaker, is head of the self- declared republic's Institute of Cultural Monuments. My camera whirred away, the flash illuminating Mestrovic's best work.

'Here is one of his best paintings,' Milojko said, pulling a magnificent canvas from behind a pile of frames. It was Kolo, a huge oil of Slav peasants dancing in traditional dress, one of the treasures of the Drnis Museum. An old museum guide lay on one shelf and, as I moved around the cramped room, I could identify each sculpture I photographed.

There was Mestrovic's bust of his brother, Petar, next to Mile, the Crazy Man, the subject of a popular short story, whom Mestrovic immortalised in 1912. Inches away lay his Picasso-like bust of his sister and his powerful self-portrait in bronze, right hand stroking his beard. Milojko, however, refused to be photographed with this extraordinary hoard - perhaps because it was not complete.

'We have this Mestrovic painting, but the other six disappeared in the fighting,' he said. 'It is possible, yes, that these pictures went to Belgrade. We asked Belgrade to investigate this. I, too, have heard that the paintings are coming up for sale in Europe . . . We would like them to come back here so we can protect them. We are a cultured people and we want to protect art.'

He hopes the works and the archives can be restored to a museum - perhaps to the Mestrovic Museum in the Croatian port of Split. But, of course, there is a price. 'We hope that (President) Tudjman (of Croatia) will return icons and other Serbian treasures to the Serbs. I expect one day these treasures will be restored - when the world recognises the Serb Krajina Republic.'

So were these masterpieces of Mestrovic, who died an American citizen in 1963, being held as political hostages? Milojko was evasive. 'We consider that art and monuments are witnesses of the past,' he replied. 'If you destroy a monument, you destroy history. If someone is killed, it is a tragedy for his family. But the loss of art or a monument is a loss to the entire world, as well as the nation that loses them. Here, we have made a list of everything we are protecting. We are looking after these great works. And I must tell you that Mestrovic is part of our history and culture, not just Croatia's. He, too, belongs to the world.'

Mestrovic's Austrian alma mater would at least have agreed with this. Among the files from the Drnis Museum - presumably still safe in the archives of the Knin castle basement - there is a certificate from the Art Academy of Vienna, expressing its respect for 'the greatest artistic genius of his age, whose sculpture we admire as the eternal creation of a free heroic heart'.

For the present, however, these products of Mestrovic's genius are likely to remain imprisoned by the politics of the former Yugoslavia.

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