Police clash with protesters in Lleida as 44 works of art at centre of dispute between Catalonia and region of Aragón are removed
Scuffles broke out between police and demonstrators after hundreds of people gathered outside a museum in the Catalan city of Lleida to protest against the removal of 44 works of art that have been at the centre of a long-running dispute between Catalonia and the neighbouring region of Aragón.
The pieces, which include paintings, alabaster reliefs and polychromatic wooden coffins, were sold to the Catalan government by the nuns of the Sijena convent, in Aragón, in the 1980s.
The Aragonese authorities have been trying to recover the works through the courts, arguing they were unlawfully sold.
At the end of November, Spain’s culture minister, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, received a judicial order for the return of the works.
With Catalonia currently under the control of the Spanish government after Madrid sacked the regional government over its unilateral declaration of independence, Méndez de Vigo authorised their return on behalf of the administration. The move has exacerbated tensions in Catalonia, which were already running high in the buildup to next week’s snap regional election.
In the early hours of Monday morning, experts accompanied by officers from the Guardia Civil and the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, entered the Museum of Lleida to begin packing up the pieces.
Around 500 people congregated outside the museum to demonstrate against the removal, some chanting “Hands up! This is a robbery!” and expressing anger over the Spanish government’s decision to assume control of Catalonia using article 155 of the constitution. Scuffles broke out between police and some protesters and a cordon was set up to allow the artworks to be loaded on to a lorry.
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.
“There is still a long way to go to resolve the litigation over these goods,” he wrote in a local paper on Sunday. “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 sacked, attacked the move on Twitter.
He accused the Spanish government of using the cover of night and the Guardia Civil to “take advantage of a coup d’état to plunder Catalonia with absolute impunity”.
A poll published on Sunday in the Catalan daily La Vanguardia suggests Catalan separatist parties will narrowly fall short of a majority in the election on 21 December.
The survey said Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya party, the Catalan Republican Left party and the anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) would win 66 or 67 seats in the 135-seat regional parliament, one or two shy of the 68 needed for a majority.