The Case of the Disappearing Frescoes

Or how a mustachioed Barcelona artist foiled an elaborate plot to spirit Catalonia’s priceless Romanesque paintings away from their homeland

In the summer of 1919, Joan Vallhonrat made his way by train, stagecoach and mule from Barcelona to the village of Mur in mountainous western Catalonia, just below the Spanish Pyrenees. An artist, Vallhonrat had accepted a commission from the Institute of Catalan Studies to travel to the remote Romanesque churches of Catalonia and paint scaled-down reproductions of the frescoes that had adorned their walls for centuries. When he entered the church of Santa Maria de Mur, however, he found a strange group of men gingerly chipping away the plaster behind the frescoes to tear them down, cart them away and ship them to America.

Who was behind this cabal? Author Stanley Meisler explores the plot as he visits the churches and the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona, where most of the frescoes, which date from the 11th through the 13th centuries, have been collected and preserved. Meisler also tells the story of the ones that got away: the frescoes from Santa Maria de Mur, whose removal had prompted Joan Vallhonrat to sound the alarm against the export of Catalonia's heritage.

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