Scuffles break out as art is ‘plundered’ from Catalan museum

Scuffles broke out on Monday between police and demonstrators gathered outside a museum in the Catalan city of Lleida to protest at the removal of 44 works of art that a Spanish court ordered be returned to a neighbouring region.

Scuffles break out as art is 'plundered' from Catalan museum
Archive image of a man draped in an Estelada flag in front of a police man. Photo: AFP

The pre-dawn operation comes amid simmering tensions between Spain's central government and Catalonia over the wealthy region's independence drive, with separatists saying it amounted to “plundering”.   

Police cordoned off the museum as workers arrived to remove the disputed art works,  including three 15th century wooden caskets.

Several hundred people gathered outside the museum chanted “Hands up! This is a robbery”, images broadcast on Spanish television showed.   

Some demonstrators briefly scuffled with police as officers tried to move them on.

Catalonia's regional government bought the art in 1983 from the nuns of the Sijena monastery in neighbouring Aragon.   

But the regional government of Aragon has since fought to recover the works, arguing they were unlawfully sold, and a court had given the Catalan museum until Monday to hand them over.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government dismissed Catalonia's government and suspended the region's autonomy after the Catalan parliament on October 27 declared independence.

“It is best to respect court decisions,” Rajoy said when asked about the operation to remove the art.

But Catalonia's ousted leader, Carles Puigdemont, took to Twitter to accuse the Spanish government of “taking advantage of a coup d'etat to plunder Catalonia with total impunity.”

Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after the Catalan parliament declared independence, is running for office in an early election in Catalonia on December 21st which was called by Spain's central government.

He is wanted in Spain for the crimes of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds over his government's independence drive.


Paul Gauguin’s ‘Mata Mua’ returns to Spain

One of French painter Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings, "Mata Mua", will return to a Madrid museum on Monday following an agreement between the Spanish government and its owner, who took it out of the country.

mata mua madrid
Toward the end of his life, Gauguin spent ten years in French Polynesia, where he completed some of his most famous artwork Painting: Paul Gaugin

The artwork had been on display for two decades at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza museum but in 2020 when the institution closed because of the pandemic, the painting’s owner Carmen Thyssen moved it to Andorra where she currently lives.

Her decision to take “Mata Mua” to the microstate sandwiched between Spain and France raised fears she would remove other works from her collection which are on display at the museum.

“It is expected that the painting will arrive today,” a spokeswoman for the museum told AFP.


In 1989, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza bought Mata Mua at the Sotheby’s auction in New York. Painting: Paul Gauguin

The artwork will go back on display to the public “a few days after” Thyssen signs a new agreement with the Spanish state for the lease of her collection, she added. The deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday.

Painted in 1892 in vivid, flat colours, “Mata Mua” depicts two women, one playing the flute and the other listening, set against a lush Tahitian landscape.

It is one of the stars of Thyssen’s collection of several hundred paintings which are on show at the museum, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Her collection had initially been displayed at the Madrid museum as part of a free loan agreement signed in February 2002 that was subsequently extended.

But in August 2021 Spain’s culture ministry announced it had reached an agreement with Thyssen to rent the collection from her for 15 years for €97.5 million ($111.5 million), with “preferential acquisition rights on all or part” of the works. The collection includes a Degas, a Hopper and a Monet.

Aside from housing her collection of works, the museum displays the collection of her late husband, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss heir to a powerful industrial lineage who died in Spain in 2002.

The Spanish state bought his collection in 1993 from $350 million, according to the museum.