Spanish law enforcement, accompanying experts in the field of art and artifacts, entered the Lleida Museum in western Catalonia this morning as part of an effort to enforce a judicial order received at the end of last month by Spain’s culture minister, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, for the return of forty-four pieces in the museum’s collection, reports Sam Jones in The Guardian. A tussle between police and demonstrators broke out after around five hundred people gathered outside the museum, located in the Catalan city of Lleida, to protest against the removal of the artifacts from the institution.
Some demonstrators shouted “Hands up! This is a robbery!” among other chants, while others expressed more generalized anger over the central Spanish government’s assumption of control of Catalonia, using article 155 of the nation’s constitution. The group of works at the heart of the controversy includes paintings, alabaster reliefs, and polychromatic wooden coffins that were sold to the Catalan government by the nuns of the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Sijena convent in neighboring Aragón in the 1980s, during the postwar dictatorship of General Franco.
The Aragonese authorities, arguing that the works were unlawfully sold, have been trying to recover the pieces through the courts since at least 2015, when a judge in the region ruled that the objects should be repatriated. Officials in Catalonia lodged an appeal that has yet to be ruled on, and as the area is currently under the control of the central Spanish government, after powers in Madrid dismissed regional leaders following a referendum on the province’s independence, officials in Aragon asked the ministry of culture to intervene. Méndez de Vigo authorized the return of the disputed artifacts on behalf of the administration. The move has exacerbated the already heightened tensions in Catalonia prior to next week’s snap regional election.
The mayor of Lleida, Ángel Ros, had argued that article 155 could not be applied to “sacred art,” and called for common sense and wisdom to prevail. He elaborated on his position in the local paper Segre on Sunday, writing, “There is still a long way to go to resolve the litigation over these goods . . . We will use all legal means to show that the purchase, by the [Catalan government] was made in accordance with the law and that the works were transferred to the Museum of Lleida with full legality and legitimacy.”
The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after he was fired by the central Spanish government, attacked the move on Twitter, accusing Spain of using the police and cover of night to “take advantage of a coup d’état to plunder Catalonia with absolute impunity.” Meanwhile, a poll published yesterday in the Catalan daily La Vanguardia suggests Catalan separatist parties will narrowly fall short of a majority in the election on December 21.