LLEIDA, Spain – More than 100 protesters clashed with riot police outside a museum in a northeastern Spanish city on Monday as technicians from a neighboring region oversaw the contentious removal of medieval artifacts for their transfer back to a monastery from which they had been illegally sold more than 30 years ago.
The Romanesque Sijena Monastery was built in the 12th century and housed an abundance of archaeological treasures, including altarpieces, murals, choir stalls and royal tombs belonging to 13th-century monarchs of the Kingdom of Aragón.
In 1923, Sijena was declared a national monument, meaning its estate was protected and all sales made since then by the local nuns were ruled as being unlawful.
However, many of the treasures were removed during the Spanish Civil War and then in the 1980s they were sold to the National Museum of Art of Catalonia (MNAC), located some 60 kilometers (37 miles) away in the neighboring region.
Spanish courts ruled in 2015 and 2016 that the sales were illegal and ordered the 97 Sijena artifacts at the MNAC be returned to the monastery.
When technicians arrived at the museum Monday to prepare the final 44 items still there, including murals and sarcophagi, for their return to Aragón, they were met by protesters gathering at the gates.
Around 100 demonstrators stood outside the museum to protest the move and were met with several van-loads of riot police who used their batons, blocked the road and tried to clear the area.
The conclusion of the legal dispute over the artifacts was made controversial by its timing, as it coincided with the triggering of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which saw Catalonia’s regional autonomy reeled back in response to a unilateral declaration of independence deemed illegal by the Spanish judiciary.
Carles Puigdemont, who was removed from his post as regional president when the Catalonian government was dissolved by the article and who is currently facing sedition and rebellion charges in Spain, branded the return of the Sijena artifacts as a form plundering.
“Under cover of night and using military police, as always, to take advantage of a coup d’etat to plunder Catalonia with complete impunity,” he wrote on his Twitter account.