For more than two decades, the medieval treasures of Spain’s Sijena Convent have been at the center of an ownership battle between the autonomous communities of Catalonia and Aragon.
Now, the 44 artifacts kept in Catalonia’s Museum of Lleida have become a flashpoint in the independence crisis, as Aragon takes advantage of direct rule to retrieve the pieces it says were illegally sold by Sijena’s nuns.
On Monday the town of Lleida was braced for a stand-off between police ordered to remove the artifacts and pro-independence Catalans who have vowed to come to their defence.
With the Catalan government dissolved, Spain’s culture minister stepped into the dispute, signing a judicial order for the return of the treasures, with a midnight on Sunday deadline. Last-minute challenges have been launched by local authorities and the museum, arguing that the case is still under appeal and the fragile treasures would suffer if they were then ordered back to Catalonia.
But the Guardia Civil have been told to seize them “with force if necessary” — a move which Josep Giralt, the museum’s director, said risks turning the operation into “a battlefield.” The CUP, a hardline secessionist party, called on Catalans to “defend” the artifacts as they had polling stations during the illegal Oct. 1 referendum.
Mireia Boya Busquet, a CUP politician from Lleida, said the removal was aimed at “humiliating Catalonia,” and the case should be taken up “as a banner of resistance against (Article) 155.”
The dispute dates back to the 1980s when, after moving their order to Barcelona, the nuns struck a deal with the Catalan government for the sale of the pieces, which include medieval sarcophagi, 16th century alabaster reliefs and 18th century paintings.
In 2015, after years of contradictory rulings and appeals, an Aragonese court found that the sales were illicit, and ordered the treasures returned. But Catalonia refused to comply with the order, lodging an appeal which has yet to be ruled upon.