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Valuable Painting and 15,000 Euros in the Luggage of the City Administration Secretary

21. Sep 2021.
The confiscated painting The Sentinel; photo: Customs Administration
Having landed at the Nikola Tesla Airport on a flight from Vienna, on July 15 this year, a passenger headed toward the exit with the sign NOTHING TO DECLARE. Passengers carrying goods not subject to customs duties pass through this exit every day. However, this passenger did not have the usual luggage with him. Customs officers discovered in his possession a painting called The Sentinel, by Paja Jovanović, bought for more than 140,000 euros, along with over 15,000 euros in cash. Although the media reported on this person as a mystery passenger, CINS reveals that the passenger in question is a Belgrade city administration secretary, Nikola Kovačević.

After the painting was discovered in his luggage, the city secretary for communal and housing affairs of the City of Belgrade and a Serbian Progressive Party alderman in the Municipal Assembly of Belgrade’s Rakovica municipality said that he thought paintings were not subject to customs duties.

Nevertheless, the officers put together minutes on the discovery of the customs offense. Kovačević claims that he did not attempt to hide the painting, but had rather approached a customs officer to ask him what he should do because he had an item of cultural value in his possession.

“Like when you’re coming to Egypt and bringing parts of a pyramid and you say ‘my dear country, here, I’ve brought parts of a pyramid from another country,’” Kovačević told the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS).

The Sentinel painting on the airplane; photo: Nikola Kovačević

The power of attorney granted to him by his wife Milena states that he purchased the painting, while the money was paid out of her account.

In addition to the precious painting, at the airport Kovačević was also found to be carrying 15,550 euros in cash.

Since the permitted amount that can be taken across the border without being declared is 10,000 euros, The Sentinel and 5,550 euros were confiscated, to be kept until the case is solved.

However, already a day after the confiscation Belgrade Deputy Mayor Goran Vesić announced the final destination of this painting by Paja Jovanović. In a Facebook post, Vesić said that the painting would end up in the Belgrade City Museum:

“As our folk would say, what is fated will happen.”

A month before it was discovered in Kovačević’s luggage, The Sentinel was put up for auction at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna. After the confiscation, Vesić revealed that the City had also been interested in buying the painting. He wrote on his Facebook profile that the plan had been a secret because if it had been revealed the price would have gone up:

“That’s why I asked a western company that operates in Belgrade to buy the painting and gift it to the Belgrade City Museum.” That company, he adds, was ready to pay up to 50,000 euros for The Sentinel.

Nikola Kovačević told CINS that Vesić had mentioned that the company in question was Austria’s Strabag, and that he had not bought the painting for the City.

He does not know whether Vesić is aware that he had purchased The Sentinel and told us to ask Vesić that. When asked why he had not told Vesić that he was the buyer, he replied:

“Would you tell every one of your colleagues about something that happened to you? Well, you wouldn’t [tell] all of them.”

Nemanja Nenadić of the Transparency Serbia organization says that the whole situation is “strange”:

“When this case is investigated, it should be checked whether there was any prior agreement between that city secretary and other city chiefs, that he would buy the painting for his own money and the City would give him a refund later.”

The sum of 15,550 euros from an unknown fellow passenger

Nikola Kovačević, a law graduate, became a public official for the first time in July 2012, as a member of the City of Belgrade electoral commission. Since then, he has constantly occupied a public position and has changed several.

In late 2013, he became the acting director of public company Belgrade Fortress, where he stayed for a year. Then he arrived at the helm of another Belgrade company, City Housing. In June 2018, he became the Belgrade City Administration secretary in charge of communal and housing affairs, and was elected as an alderman in the Rakovica Assembly in the 2020 local elections.

He did not earn more than 155,000 dinars at any of those jobs, and currently officially has a monthly salary of 110,000 dinars as a city secretary.

Data from the real estate cadaster show that this official took a home loan in October 2017. He pledged then to repay the loan, which amounts to almost 99,000 euros without interest, in 15 years.

A significant change in his registered assets occurred this past May, when Kovačević reported that he had inherited two apartments and a vacation apartment on Mt. Kopaonik from his parents. He also reported deposits in banks or other financial organizations in the country and abroad.

He told CINS that the painting had been bought with the money his wife had earned from the sale of a piece of real estate, which had been reported to the Anti-Corruption Agency:

“The money was earned legally, it was in my wife’s account and has nothing to do with my salary.”

He said the 15,550 euros customs officers found during a search of his luggage were not his, that a friend who was traveling with him had given the money back to him, which is why he did not declare it. Asked why he had the money in his possession, Kovačević replied that it was “a private matter”.

In the interview with the CINS journalist, he said that he came from a wealthy family that had lived in Belgrade for hundreds of years and that he was an art collector. He did not repay his home loan with the money for the painting because, as he puts it, loans have never been cheaper, while the value of the painting increases annually.

He added that the painting had been purchased for his own collection:

“My family is a family of collectors, my father and mother are collectors.”

Nemanja Nenadić explains that besides their assets and income, officials are also obliged to report the assets and income of their spouses and underage children, with whom they live, to the Anti-Corruption Agency. In his words, Kovačević may have reported that his wife has some savings, but that is not visible on the Agency website because it is not in the public part of the reports on assets and income.

He thinks that, now that it is known that Kovačević bought the painting and tried to bring it into the country undeclared, together with thousands of euros, it would be logical for the Agency to check his assets and income.

“I also believe there are grounds for the prosecutor’s office to address the Agency and request information on what assets and income this official has reported, and see whether there might be a situation where he did not report some assets and income which might have been used to finance this purchase.”

“The painting stays in the family”

After they found the painting and the money in Kovačević’s luggage, the customs officers notified Deputy Public Prosecutor Aleksandar Milić, who told them to follow procedure, i.e. to document the customs offense.

The Customs Administration on July 21 filed a request for initiating a misdemeanor proceeding before the Misdemeanor Court in Belgrade, proposing a fine as well as a protective measure – seizure of the undeclared goods.

A misdemeanor fine may range from the same amount as the value of the goods to a fourfold higher sum, lawyer Ivan Ninić told CINS. Aside from a fine, another possible penalty is the confiscation of the goods.

Goran Vesić (right) and Nikola Kovačević (middle) with citizens; photo: City of Belgrade

The documents CINS had access to show that Kovačević did not appear at the hearing on September 7. The court summons was not delivered and he did not pick it up at the court 15 days after the delivery of the notification at his address.

Kovačević said he did not understand how they had failed to deliver the summons to him and that he had learned about the trial from the media.

The Customs Administration also sent a memo to the First Public Prosecutor’s Office about this case, so as to determine whether Kovačević had been smuggling the painting and the money or if it was a different criminal offense.

The First Public Prosecutor’s Office forwarded the memo to the Third Public Prosecutor’s Office, which then sent it to the Special Department for the Suppression of Corruption of the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office, to determine whether this was the criminal offense of smuggling.

Representatives of the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office say that, according to their records, that case has not reached them yet.

Ninić told CINS that, unlike a misdemeanor as a less serious offense that leaves minor social consequences, smuggling as a felony is characterized by a more difficult situation.

“For example, transportation of goods across a border as a profession, transportation by an armed individual, transportation in a group, or transportation with the use of force or threats,” Ninić explained.

In that case, the penalty may be between six months and five years in prison and a fine, while a more severe form may carry between one and eight years in prison and a fine.

As for his forecast about how the entire case will end, Kovačević said:

“I will pay the penalty for ignorance and I absolutely should pay the misdemeanor fine and the painting will remain the property of the family that legally bought it, brought it and earned it.”

The Sentinel spent more than 100 years in Italy

According to a report from public service RTS, the painting The Sentinel was made in the 19th century. The Dorotheum curator for classicism told RTS that the painting had come to the auction house from Italy, where it had been owned by a family for more than 100 years. Even though the auction house had estimated that the painting was worth between 20,000 and 30,000 euros, it was sold at a much higher price. Besides The Sentinel, another painting by Paja JovanovićAn Albanian Warrior – was sold at the same auction at Dorotheum.

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