Spain Publishes Extensive List of Artworks Seized During Civil War

More than 5,000 items were deposited with state museums and have remained there for nearly a century.

Stone statues deposited in San Francisco el Grande, early September 1937. Courtesy Institute of Cultural Heritage of Spain.

As the Spanish Civil War raged between 1936 and 1939, Republican forces took hold of thousands of paintings and sculptures, as well as other valuables, to safeguard them from the conflict. When the regime of dictator Francisco Franco took control, it never returned them, and these items, including books, furniture, ceramics, liturgical ornaments, and jewelry, made their way into various state museums. His regime came to an end in 1975, but it is only now, 50 years later, that Spain’s culture ministry has put forth a list of more than 5,000 items that were seized.

The artifacts are currently in the collections of nine institutions, including, in Madrid, the National Archaeological Museum, the National Museum of Romanticism, the National Museum of Decorative Arts, the National Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of America and the Sorolla Museum; in Valencia, National Museum of Ceramics and Decorative Arts “González Martí”; and, in Valladolid, the National Museum of Sculpture. The Ministry of Culture also uncovered a painting preserved at its own headquarters.

“We’re offering a space in which people can learn about our history,” said Spain’s culture minister, Ernest Urtasun. “We’re also opening the door to returning those pieces that can be identified to their rightful owners.”

A truck and a van transporting Spanish cultural artifacts during the civil war

A van and military truck used to transfer paintings to Valencia. Courtesy of the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

During the first days of the military uprising, according to the department of culture, the Republican government established the Artistic Treasury Board, whose purpose was to protect cultural assets. As insurgent troops occupied more territories, they created the Service for the Defense of National Artistic Heritage, which was to be responsible for returning the works to their owners after the war. 

One group of works came from collector and art dealer José Weissberger, who was prosecuted by the Court of Political Responsibilities, which targeted supporters of the Republic. They are the only works in the newly released list that originated in embargoes carried out by the Franco dictatorship, according to the Ministry of Culture; they found their way into the holdings of the Museum of Decorative Arts. 

Yesterday’s publication of the list is an outgrowth of the Democratic Memory Law, which went into effect in 2022 and is meant to address the aftermath of the Franco regime. It also includes provisions requiring the teaching of the history of the dictatorship, renders void convictions for military rebellion, requires the exhumation of mass graves, and requires the removal of various Francoist monuments, among others. 

Those who believe they have a claim on any of the 5,126 artifacts can submit an application with the Ministry of Culture, which says that responses will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

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