More than 1,000 pieces stolen by the Franco regime in Spanish national museum

by Lorraine Williamson
national museums
MADRID – The National Archaeological Museum in Madrid holds more than a thousand objects stolen by the Franco regime. The centre maintained an appropriation policy until the 1950s and has no exact inventory of illicit assets. 

According to the newspaper, from 1941 the museum preserved an extraordinary collection of Iberian ceramics. The collection was exhibited without mentioning the looted owner, Carlos Walter Heiss. With the exhibition, the National Archaeological Museum (MAN) wants to present in its own words “the typological variety of ceramics produced by the pre-Roman peoples of the Iberian Peninsula from the 6th century BC”. 

With all the special pieces there is little information about the place where it was found. Objects are exhibited just like the rest of the pieces to give a picture of the history of Spain. These ceramics are located in the rooms dedicated to “Protohistory”. The halls have not been closed due to the shortage of staff the Rijksmuseum has to contend with, which has kept a large part of the rooms closed for a year and a half. 

A kálathos, possibly from Murcia and unlike the rest of the Iberian ceramics, has no history of the object. The origin has also been reported. 

An extraordinary collection 

The collection of ceramics is illustrative of one of the most brutal cases of Franco looting in the post-war period. It belonged to the exquisite collection of Carlos Walter Heiss, of whom hardly anything is known. The first information that has found about Heiss is preserved in the archives of the National Archaeological Museum. This is a letter dated April 4, 1934, in which he proposes to sell his collection of Iberian ceramics to the state. 

Weiss indicated that he owned the collection he wanted to sell for more than 20 years. “Of extraordinary scientific interest because the National Archaeological Museum, or the Municipal Museum of Barcelona, ​​​​or any other museum abroad, does not have such a complete, important and numerous batch of ceramics, consisting of unique pieces in the world”, he said, basing himself on opinions about his collection from various specialists. 

For teaching and research purposes of Spanish culture

The collector indicated that he felt compelled to sell his collection due to “changed economic circumstances”. He felt it his duty to “give preference to the State because it must be State heritage”. Thus, it could be used for teaching and research purposes of Spanish culture. 

The Directorate General of Fine Arts allowed experts to confirm the exceptionality of the collection of 81 pieces. In June 1934, they judged positively and proposed the National Archaeological Museum as the designated place. However, they shied away from appraisal, about which they remained vague. 

On August 21, 1934, the director of the National Archaeological Museum gave his opinion on the collection and the price: he wanted to buy the ceramics at a value he estimated at 10% of the price Heiss asked for, 15,000 pesetas. 

Of the entire collection, the pieces that most interested the museum’s director are the group of 26 Hispanics. And above all, it drew attention to an “exceptional” piece for its size and decoration, which has disappeared from the museum. The documents have also disappeared. Furthermore, Heiss declined the offer, despite his financial headwinds. 

Stealing instead of paying 

The next testimony from the collection is dated May 7, 1941, seven years after the offering and with the Civil War in between. The Board for the Confiscation and Protection of the Artistic Heritage of the Republic had transferred Heiss’s collection to the Salvation Warehouse, located in the Archaeological Museum itself. Once there, in 1939, the precious set of Iberian, Punic and Roman ceramics came into the hands of the National Artistic Heritage Restoration Service of the Franco regime. 

Blas Taracena Aquirre, a renowned archaeologist from Soria who led the excavations in Numancia, was director of the Numantino Museum at the age of 19 and was close to the Republican Left party during the Second Republic. However, he was also classed as a ‘right-wing monarchist’. 

Head of the Archaeological Museum of Córdoba

In December 1936, Taracena joined the insurgent army in Burgos, but after a purge process, he had to leave Soria and was transferred to head the Archaeological Museum of Córdoba. He became General Inspector of Archaeological Museums of the Service for the Defense of the National Artistic Heritage (SDPAN). 

Later, after declaring his “most fervent attachment to the work and person of the Caudillo [Franco]”, he was appointed director of MAN in 1939. He held that position until his death on February 1, 1951. 

It is not known what happened to Carlos Walter Heiss on that May 7, 1941, when Blas Taracena signed the appropriation of Heiss’ assets together with the deputy commissioner general of the SDPAN, Joaquin de Navascues. 

The two were well aware of what they were doing. Both knew the origins of the collection and its extraordinary reputation. After Tarracena’s death, Navascues succeeded Taracena as director. 

So-called down payment 

“The director of the museum took care of the 83 numbered objects and the 39 unnumbered objects,” the document explains. And he received them as a “down payment”, the formula to legitimise the theft. Neither 15,000 nor 150,000 pesetas were paid for the imposing collection. Carlos Walter Heiss was robbed of his belongings in favour of the MAN, who has called this collection his own for 76 years. 

Strengthen the museum with the work of others 

This “deposit” wouldn’t be the only one Taracena would perform. At the end of February of that year, 33 lots had already been appropriated on behalf of MAN, consisting of 115 goods, including 30 swords, ceramic plates, a lot of porcelain and bowls, dishes, vases, bottles or a glass jug. They were all displayed in the same archaeological museum, waiting for their owners to come and get them. 

However, the families of the rightful owners, against whom the Franco regime had retaliated, did not dare to reclaim what was theirs. In addition, the SDPAN did not look for the rightful owners. Instead, the assets were transferred to third parties. 

In July 1943, 33 lots did not belong to the museum. This consisted of 71 items such as a Gothic sculpted virgin, eight gold rings, dozens of cameos or a lady’s head in baked clay. 

Over 5,000 illegally appropriated works

The MAN continued to acquire assets in August 1951, already under the direction of Navascués: 100 commemorative medals, 35 metal medallions, 17 plaster reproductions of medals and a batch of 85 domestic and foreign awards. These processes took place at least until the mid-1950s. 

There are more than a thousand works related to this illegal form of appropriation. But MAN acknowledges that it lacks a specific inventory of the pieces that have come in via this route. 

“Unlike in a museum of an artistic nature, with paintings, sculptures or works characterised by their creative individuality, archaeological museums not only preserve objects that are the result of creativity but also of everyday activities. Many are old entries with no graphic documentation, so the historiographical study of these collections is a time-consuming task. Especially when you consider that a huge number of pieces have been preserved in this centre. The studies, carried out by specialists, have been carried out on cultural attribution and type of objects, but not so much on collections,” the museum told 

Management does not respond to questions from 

However, the management of the MAN has not responded to questions regarding the exhibits from the Carlos Walter Heiss collection. They also do not answer the question from the management about the exhibition and communication policy that the MAN has pursued so far regarding these lootings. 

The Ministry of Culture has also not yet instructed any of the 16 state museums to draw up an exhaustive inventory of goods stolen during the Franco regime held in these institutions. According to the newspaper, this could exceed 10,000.

Also read: Spain withdrawns “postmortem” medals from Franco´s executioner

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