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Gallery owner has eye for 'naive' art

Published April 30, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - After six months of flawless operation at his new gallery, Jim Nannen's worst business fear came to pass: A shipment of fragile glass paintings worth $70, 000 had gone missing somewhere in Europe.

"Nobody was able to give us a proper answer, " said Nannen, the owner of Croatian Naive Art Gallery on Beach Drive. "When I went into this business, this was my biggest concern."

Nannen sells and displays artworks painted in reverse on glass. They come from a decades-old tradition of artists, often referred to as amateur or naive artists, who live in rural border regions of Croatia near Hungary. Because the paintings are relatively rare and delicate and come from a remote part of the world, Nannen was always worried about transferring them from the Croatian countryside to the United States.

This latest shipment was bundled up April 11 by a FedEx franchise in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. It was supposed to reach Nannen, as had all his previous packages, in about three days. This was the largest and most valuable shipment to date.

"Once it left Zagreb, it was impossible to find, " Nannen said.

Some reports had the 400-pound crate in Paris; others in Frankfurt. There were suggestions the package had been stolen, and Interpol called the gallery about its investigations. There was even talk of getting the FBI involved. The story was picked up by the Zagreb media.

Then on April 21, Nannen got a call that the package was on its way to FedEx headquarters in Memphis, Tenn. When it didn't arrive the next day, he called and learned it hadn't been shipped to Tampa, as expected, but was on its way to Seattle.

FedEx spokesman Steve Barber did not have details about the specific shipment but he said the company's systems eventually worked. The shipment arrived on April 26. He said he's investigating whether FedEx will offer the gallery a discount for its troubles.

Nannen was ill prepared for such international intrigue. He'd spent his life running pet stores, first in Massachusetts and then starting and growing the Animal House chain here. But he caught the art bug when he went to a Croatian art exhibit in 2000 at the Museum of Fine Arts. He was so captivated by the mood, texture, color and character of the naive art that he set about creating a collection.

As he scoured the Internet for dealers, Nannen learned that the art form was rare in the United States. He visited Croatia for an exhibit there and was driven to tour the country, knocking on farmhouse doors searching for the farmer artists. Seeing a business opportunity, he decided to start a U.S. gallery.

The business now sits on the ground floor of Parkshore Plaza, across from Straub Park. His pieces range from $300 to $400 for a postcard-size work to $30, 000 for larger pieces.

He has about 200 paintings on display, but this latest shipment of 67 represented a significant new addition. "I was concerned about how I was going to continue the business, " he said.

Now that his box has arrived, Nannen said he can sleep again.

"This is very different from the pet business."

[Last modified April 29, 2007, 21:02:35]

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