IN the wake of the Spanish Civil War, Republican Colonel José Sicardo Jiménez- Córdova and his wife Mariana Carderera had little choice but to flee their home country and go into exile, given the likelihood they would be shot for being “reds”. In Madrid they left behind them a six-story building in Moreto street, which was filled with not just hundreds of artworks but also a 12,000-volume library. Barely days after they fled, Francoist forces stole everything they could get their hands on.
More than 80 years later, the grandson of the couple, Carlos Colón Sicardo, is still fighting to get his family’s property back. To add insult to injury, many of the works have been located in the building that houses the Public Treasury, which is part of the Economy Ministry, as well as the Asturias Fine Arts Museum and the Museum of Romanticism in Madrid.
“In 1928 there was a law in Spain, and everyone who had a private art collection was forced to allow the government to take pictures of paintings and where they were located,” Carlos explains to The Olive Press. “I have those pictures of the collection that were taken in 1928.”
His grandparents’ possessions included works by Goya, Anton van Dyck and even Velázquez, and the paintings were inscribed with the words “Sicardo Collection” on their reverse. The Spanish daily El Diario recently published a story on the affair, bringing to light the challenge that lays ahead of Carlos.
The official documents related to the seizure still exist, and read: “In this house, which is currently inhabited by refugees, a number of paintings, ceramic pieces and furniture of considerable value have been found.”
“When my grandparents returned to Spain in the 1960s, the building in Madrid was returned along with another property in Ávila, but my grandmother was told that all of the contents had been lost,” Carlos explains. “In the 1960s they were afraid to speak out,” he says, in reference to the Franco-era repression of the time.
According to Carlos’s account, “marquises and counts” considered the property seized from the losing side of the Civil War to be theirs. “People went to these art deposits and picked out whatever they liked,” he explains. “They made a fortune by taking what they wanted.”
Thanks to a friend of Carlos’s who works in Spain’s historical heritage department, he has now been able to track around 76 of the works down. But he has little clue of what to do next.
“I’m trying to find a good law firm that I can rely on to take up this adventure to recover any of the seized paintings,” explains Carlos in near-perfect English, thanks to his job as a professor at North American universities in Madrid. “If we can get back a percentage of that collection, and this is wishful thinking, we would keep one as a token and we would put the rest up for sale,” he says.
Carlos has no doubt that the pieces that ended up in private homes have been lost forever. “We are not going to battle with powerful people,” he says with resignation. “But those that are in the hands of the state, I will fight for those if I have a chance.”
He may still be successful: the Spanish Industry Ministry recently decided to return works that it held that had been stolen from the Basque Nationalist politician Ramón de la Sota.
What’s more, Madrid’s Prado Museum has recently confirmed to El Diario that it has checked its inventory and has 64 works that were seized from their rightful owners by the Franco regime. But the Culture Ministry is still yet to set into action any procedures to locate and return the hundreds of stolen works that are still held by the country’s state museums.
“I’d like to get back at least one painting for the sake of justice,” Carlos concludes.