Greenwich artist Marian "Bing" Bingham has waited many weeks to hear some good news from Eastern Europe.
It was there, on the border of Serbia and Romania, that Serbian customs officials confiscated 15 of her paintings -- valued at thousands of dollars -- along with the work of four other artists, on Nov. 16.
"I really wonder if these artworks will come back," Bingham said Thursday.
Bingham and her colleagues are now engaged in an ongoing legal battle, with two lawyers in Serbia fighting to have the artwork returned.
She finds it difficult to see photos of her missing paintings, which represent 10 years of work.
"One belongs to my husband, Ken," Bingham said. "And that makes me very sad."
Bingham's paintings were part of a traveling show of five artists' work that began in France in August. The art was being transported to a gallery in Bucharest, Romania, by fellow artist David Suter and Victor Gaetan, a Washington, D.C., gallery owner who represents the artists in his two adjacent galleries, the Alex Gallery and Gallery A.
The Romanian-born art dealer had booked the ill-fated exhibition in Bucharest to open Nov. 29 before continuing to other European cities. He expected no trouble, nor did Bingham, whose work has been in numerous shows abroad.
"We had all the necessary documentation: a manifest of the art, photos and dimensions, my gallery background and invitation to the Bucharest gallery," Gaetan said.
Gaetan and Suter had driven their art-filled minivan from France through Italy, Slovenia and Croatia without incident. But, as they arrived at the Croatian/Serbian border, something odd happened.
"I asked if there were any forms to complete," Gaetan said. No, replied the customs officer, who seemed all too ready to expedite their entry. Taking the shortest route across Serbia, they arrived at a somewhat remote border crossing to Romania that evening. There the trouble began.
"Whose are these paintings?" Gaetan recalled a Serbian customs officer asking him. "We answered they were ours, and he told us, `You are in big trouble.' "
The customs officer told Gaetan they were missing the necessary transit form and asked Gaetan and Suter to upwrap all 68 paintings.
"He said he was missing Picasso paintings and needed to see them," Gaetan said.
A month prior to their arrival, Serbian police recovered two Picasso paintings worth millions that had been stolen from a Swiss gallery, according to BBC News.
Filling out his report, the customs official suggested Gaetan put the value of the paintings at a conservative $5,000.
"There is no value," Gaetan told him. "They are not for sale."
What followed, Gaetan believes, was an attempt at bribery.
"You are rich Americans," the customs officer told him, opening his wallet. "And I have nothing in my wallet. It's empty."
At 2:30 a.m., the customs official moved to contact a local judge, who was readily available, Gaetan said. The judge ordered the two to be held under guard overnight in a hotel in the nearby town of Zajecar for questioning the next morning.
One night turned into three. Finally the two were brought before the judge for a hearing, with their request for a lawyer refused. Separated for questioning, they were each told they had entered Serbia illegally and that they were "Picasso smuggler suspects," Gaetan said.
The judge ruled their art would be confiscated -- along with their passports, Gaetan said. Both were fined $5,000, which they were ordered to pay immediately or face being thrown in jail.
There followed a frantic and fruitless two-day effort to raise the funds. It wasn't until Nov. 21 that the two managed to raise the money in Serbian currency, with credit cards and money wired from Gaetan's gallery. By then Gaetan had hired an English-speaking Serbian lawyer in Belgrade with help from the U.S. Embassy.
Their passports returned the same day, Gaetan and Suter were finally on their way to Bucharest. But it wasn't a friendly goodbye.
"The customs officers were yelling at us that we should be in jail," Gaetan said. "That if we stop for a moment they would turn it into a criminal case."
Arriving in Bucharest with no art, they were met by Bingham and her husband, Ken McAdams, who had come for the gallery opening. They had waited two anxious days for some word from Gaetan and Suter.
With the opening approaching and nothing to exhibit, Bingham, Suter and a third artist, Rosanna Azar stepped up to create new art -- with little over a week to work. Ultimately the show was a success, with about 100 attendees, including a local television station, Gaetan said.
Back in Serbia, Gaetan's lawyer, Chad Backovic, was working with a lawyer in Zajecar to watch over the confiscated art.
"Our Belgrade lawyer followed up with an appeal to the Serbian appellate court," Gaetan said. "They found the case unusual and sent it back to the lower court to take another look."
But the latest word from Serbia was not good news. The lower court again ruled against Gaetan and Suter, so their lawyer is going back to appellate court.
Reached in his Belgrade office, Backovic said his clients' predicament resulted from not knowing the rules.
"Basically, these two guys made a mistake," he said of Gaetan and Suter. "They showed up at the border with Croatia and Serbia and did not declare their goods that were in plain view of the customs officer. The customs officer was waving his hand to continue on their journey. He should have stopped him, but that didn't happen. This was the main argument for our appeal. But the lower court is now saying Victor Gaetan should have stopped his car regardless."
What Gaetan was missing were transit papers, Backovic said. He cited the confusion American travelers often have with differing requirements from one country to another.
"Many of the countries they pass through are part of the European Union, where there are no border-crossing formalities," Backovic said. "But passing through Croatia into Serbia, neither country is part of the European Union."
Backovic said he was hopeful that Serbia would "act properly and decently," because "if the lower court judgment stands, it is an attack on international art exchange."
"Serbian law recognizes a mistake as a defense, and that those mistakes will not be punished," he said.
Reached by phone, a State Department official said the U.S. embassy is aware of the case, but privacy law precludes officials from sharing information on specific individuals or cases in Serbia. Nor can the embassy intervene in the Serbian judicial process, the official said.
A spokeswoman for Vladimir Petrovic, the Serbian Ambassador to the United States, said the ambassador's office is "aware of the situation regarding Mr. Gaetan" and "trying to get all relevant information from Serbia."
For Gaetan, an incident he called tragic has had some positive outcomes. A story about the confiscation in the Serbian press brought an invitation from the National Gallery of Serbia to show the work of the five artists at a time of their choosing, he said.
And during their fraught visit to Bucharest, Gaetan and the three American artists were treated to an authentic Thanksgiving dinner as guests of the heir to the Romanian throne, Prince Paul-Philippe Hohenzollern and his American wife, Princess Lia Georgia Triff.
The experience reminds Gaetan of another art-importing fiasco. In 1927, an American artist purchased the work of Romanian-born abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi. U.S. Customs officials, refusing to accept that the piece of metal was a work of art and therefore duty free, instead charged the high tax placed upon raw metals. Brancusi sued the government to recover the fees and won.
The silver lining?
"This is how he was discovered," Gaetan said, adding as a caveat, "We don't know if these artists will become the next Brancusis."