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More than 5,000 items stolen during Franco regime catalogued by Spanish government

Stone statues collected by the Junta and deposited in San Francisco el Grande, early September 1937.
Stone statues collected by the Junta and deposited in San Francisco el Grande, early September 1937. Copyright IPCE
Copyright IPCE
By Jonny Walfisz
Published on Updated
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A list of over 5,000 art items seized by the Franco regime have been published by the Spanish government so they can be returned to their original owners’ descendants.

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During the Spanish Civil War (1936 - 1939) that resulted in Francisco Franco’s fascist government ruling the country until his death in 1975, thousands of paintings, sculptures, jewellery and other precious items were seized by Franco’s Nationalist forces from political opponents.

Many items were also lost in the chaos of the conflict or given as a gift to Franco’s government by his supporters. This week, 88 years after the start of the Civil War, the Spanish government has compiled a 5,126 piece catalogue of all these objects so that they can be returned to their original owners or their descendants.

In the early days of the Nationalist uprising in 1936, the governing Second Spanish Republic government created the Artistic Treasury Board, an institution designed to shield precious cultural assets from the inevitable looting that Franco’s military junta brought. These assets were stored in safe deposits.

As Franco’s troops increasingly took control of Spanish territory, the National Artistic Heritage Defence Service was created to ensure that these items would be returned to their original owners once the war was over.

However, this never happened for many of the objects after the war, nor after 1975. Instead they were placed in institutions and museums across the country.

Junta van and military truck that, provided by commanders Daniel Ortega and Briones, carried out the transfer of paintings to Valencia.
Junta van and military truck that, provided by commanders Daniel Ortega and Briones, carried out the transfer of paintings to Valencia.Ministry of Culture

The list has been compiled from the assets of nine state museums: the Costume Museum-Ethnological Heritage Research Centre, the National Archaeological Museum, the National Museum of Romanticism and the National Museum of Decorative Arts, the National Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of America and the Sorolla Museum, in Madrid; the National Museum of Ceramics and Sumptuary Arts ‘Gonzalez Martí’, in Valencia; and the National Museum of Sculpture, in Valladolid.

“Research in the collections of the state museums managed directly by the Ministry of Culture and the different archives that guard documentation related to the seizure process during the Civil War, allows us to trace the path of the pieces from their seizure to the present,” the Ministry of Culture says.

The Spanish Ministry of Culture has published the list of objects online as part of the government’s effort to bring “justice, reparation and dignity” to the victims of the conflict.

It is the first of the government’s ministries to comply with the Spanish Law of Democratic Memory, that came into effect in 2022 to combat the “Pact of Forgetting”, a political decision by both the left and right political parties to avoid confronting the legacy of Franco after 1975.

Seized chandeliers
Seized chandeliersIPCE. Archivo Junta del Tesoro

Other impacts of the Law of Democratic Memory include a planned national DNA bank to help identify the remains of thousands of people in unmarked graves from the era, a ban on groups glorifying the Franco era, and memorials to those who were killed during his reign.

“The preparation and publication of the inventory are the first steps on the path to the restitution of seized assets,” a press release from the Ministry of Culture reads.

“The will of the Ministry of Culture is to return to their legitimate owners all those assets that can be identified.”

Anyone who believes they have a claim for an item can file a request with the ministry.

"The first step was to inventory and if no one asks for it, we'll see what we do. Each piece has its story and we want to do everything with maximum legal certainty," Culture Minister Ernest Urtasun said.

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