Protesters and police officers clash outside the Museu de Lleida (screenshot by the author via YouTube)

Protesters and police officers clash outside the Museu de Lleida (screenshot by the author via YouTube)

This morning, in the predawn hours, Spanish law enforcement officers entered a museum in Catalonia and seized artifacts that the neighboring region of Aragon has long claimed as its own. Since the 1980s, the Museu de Lleida, in the city of the same name in western Catalonia, has been home to 44 objects from the Monastery of Santa María de Sigena, a 12th-century convent in Aragon. Though Catalan officials maintain that the works were acquired legally, Aragon claims the monastery’s nuns didn’t have the authority to sell them. The objects include ornate and colorful wooden coffins, paintings, sculptures, and more.

Some of the painted wooden coffins at the Museu de Lleida whose ownership is disputed (photo by Xavier Zapater/Flickr, © Lleida Museum)

Officers from the Guardia Civil and the Catalan police accompanied art experts to the museum around 4am this morning, according to BBC News, to begin preparing the objects for transportation back to Aragon. Some 500 demonstrators gathered outside the institution to protest the works’ removal, occasionally clashing with law enforcement officers, and, according to the Guardian, chanting: “Hands up! This is a robbery!” Videos uploaded hours later show a large truck presumed to contain the 44 objects pulling away from the museum, accompanied by a large police convoy.

While a court in Aragon had ruled two years ago that the objects should be repatriated, the current political crisis in Catalonia expedited the process. After Spain’s federal government dissolved the Catalan parliament for declaring independence and seized control of the region in October, a judge in Aragon sent a judicial order seeking the works’ return to Spanish Culture Minister Íñigo Méndez de Vigo. On December 1, the culture minister ordered the works’ transfer to Aragon within 10 days.

Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president, blasted the seizure on Twitter. “Under cover of darkness and using a militarized police, as usual, taking advantage of a coup d’état to plunder Catalonia with absolute impunity,” he wrote.

On Saturday, the Museu de Lleida tweeted a statement from the Network of Museums of Catalonia blasting authorities for green-lighting the seizure while Catalonia has no parliament, rather than awaiting the outcome of special elections slated for December 21.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...