Museum accused of giving away Balenciaga's work

By Elizabeth Nash
Friday 29 February 2008 01:00

A museum dedicated to the work of the Spanish fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga has become embroiled in a scandal over allegations that the legendary couturier's creations have been given away.

Items missing from a catalogued collection in the designer's home town of Getaria in the Basque country include 139 sketches by Balenciaga with his handwritten notes, a pair of white leather gloves, a pair of three-quarter-length velvet evening gloves, and five scarves of silk, wool and taffeta.

The pieces are alleged to have been "given to the wives of councillors in the town halls of Getaria and Zarautz", according to an internal report by the Balenciaga Foundation, a conservative MP in the Basque regional government claimed yesterday.

"There are reasons to believe that additional scarves were also given away, but so far it has been impossible to locate them," Borja Semper, a regional MP for the Popular Party, said in San Sebastian. "Part of our public heritage has disappeared without trace. The mechanisms of control have failed, and party interests have prevailed."

The Basque government's culture department said it was never informed by the Balenciaga Foundation, which administers the publicly owned collection, of alleged irregularities. But Mr Semper claims a report produced by the foundation in September drew attention to the missing items.

Also missing is a pair of nylon stockings ceded by New York's Metropolitan art museum, which received them from their owner, Claudine Belmont.

Balenciaga, who died in 1972, made his name in Paris in the 1940s and 1950s in the golden age of haute couture, and was hailed by Coco Chanel as "the only true couturier amongst us, able to design, cut, assemble and sew a dress entirely by himself". His clients included Princess Grace of Monaco and the Duchess of Windsor. Mariano Camio, the former Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) mayor of Getaria, first had the idea of establishing the museum in 1987. He later headed the company contracted to build it, and became the foundation's deputy president, and museum director. Mr Camio resigned last year and is under investigation by magistrates in San Sebastian on suspicion of administrative disloyalty, forgery and misappropriation of public funds.

The Culture Ministry in Madrid has frozen a €1.4m (£1.1m) grant, because of "indications of irregularities in the management of the Balenciaga Foundation". The project has been controversial since Mr Camio contracted his friend the Cuban architect Julian Argilagos to design the museum in 1998. Mr Argilagos received a €439,000 "overpayment", and was later sacked.

The futuristic building, begun in 2001, was to open in 2003 but remains unfinished. Its €6m budget has swollen to €21m, while the foundation is €1.8m in debt.

The Basque government bought Balenciaga's collection in 1987 for about £200,000, and set up the foundation with the Culture Ministry to administer the works and supervise the building of the museum.

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