The Paternity Saga That Dug Up Salvador Dalí, Explained

The contentious exhuming of artist Salvador Dalí, which occurred nearly three decades after his death in 1989, was mostly for naught. The Independent reported yesterday that DNA tests using material from the artist’s body, exhumed as part of a high-profile paternity case, proved that Pilar Abel, a 61-year-old tarot card reader, is not the long-lost daughter of the famous painter. The Surrealist artist’s famous moustache, however, remains intact even in death, though his corpse lost two nails and two bones to the procedure.


Origins of an exhuming

Abel previously argued that Dalí had a “clandestine love affair” with her mother, Antonia Martínez de Haro, in the 1950s while she was his employee in the artist’s summer home in Port Lligat on the coast of Spain. While Abel grew up Figueres, the same town as Dalí, she said she never approached him directly. She claimed to have found out about the affair from her mother and grandmother.

A divorced mother of four who worked as a tarot-card reader for a Spanish Television station in Girona, Abel referred to Dalí as her “father” and hoped to change her surname to Dalí. Despite claiming not to be motivated by potential inheritance, Abel stood to gain a fourth of Dalí’s vast estate—which, according to her lawyer Enrique Blazquez, under Catalan law included “copyright, paintings, and everything else”—should she be certified as his biological daughter. The New York Times reported in 2015 that Dalí left hundreds of millions of euros in paintings to the Spanish government.

This is not the first case Abel brought involving a famous individual. Disgruntled and insulted by an alleged allusion to her in the 2003 novel Soldados de Salamina, Absel sued writer Javier Cercas for €‎700,000 in 2005. The court of Girona, however, dismissed the case.

The most recent, and likely final, test in the long-running patrimony saga came following two prior inconclusive DNA tests. The first was in in 2007 and utilized materials from the deceased artist’s death mask. Abel subsequently turned to Robert Descharnes, a friend and biographer of Dalí, to facilitate yet another genetic test employing medical samples. Those results again proved inconclusive.

But Abel argued that she had never received the aforementioned results, which she claimed actually proved her case. Descharnes’s son Nicolas not only refuted her claim about the results, but also told Spanish international news agency EFE in 2008 that “no relation between this woman and Salvador Dalí” existed.


“A totally Surrealist event”

In 2015, Abel again took to the courts. Her suit, initially reported by El Mundo and other publications in March of that year, was brought against the Spanish state and the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation. She sought to obtain the results of the DNA test allegedly hidden from her or to have another test carried out. She asked that the artist’s body be exhumed if materials proved insufficient.

Catalonia’s High Court sided with Abel. “The DNA study of the painter’s corpse is necessary due to the lack of other biological or personal remains with which to perform the comparative study,” the ruling stated. In July, Abel received permission to exhume the body to obtain samples for a DNA test to settle the question once and for all.

The exhumation of the embalmed corpse, kept in a crypt in a Figueres museum dedicated to the painter’s life and work, required the removal of a 1.5 ton slab. The process met with strong objections from the foundation, which appealed the court’s ruling, and local authorities, with both parties reportedly claiming that not enough advance notice was given. But the exhuming occurred nonetheless.

For her part, Abel claimed she just wanted “the truth to be known.” Yet the DNA test conclusively disproved her claim.

“This conclusion comes as no surprise to the Foundation, since at no time has there been any evidence of the veracity of an alleged paternity,” said the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation in a statement. “The Foundation is pleased that this report puts an end to an absurd and artificial controversy.” The statement also noted that the artist’s remains will “shortly be returned.”

Dalí, who died in 1989 with no known children, had only one serious partner: his muse Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, also known as Gala Dalí, who he met in 1929. The pair married in 1934 and remained devoted to one another until her death in 1982.

Many close to the painter also believed the affair to be a hoax because of longtime speculation over Dalí’s sexual orientation, and apparently his impotency. “Dalí always boasted: ‘I’m impotent, you’ve got to be impotent to be a great painter,’” Ian Gibson, the artist’s biographer, told the BBC.

Carlos Lozano, a friend of the artist, also reportedly told Gibson, “Dalí was totally unable to have any sexual relations with anybody, not even, probably, with Gala.” Apparently, Lozano claimed, “He hated being touched and when he touched you it was like being clawed by an eagle.”

The unnecessary nature of the contentious drawn-out process notwithstanding, Gibson seemed to think Dalí would have enjoyed the unorthodox and bizarre situation: “It’s a totally Surrealist event. He’d be thrilled, I’m quite sure, by the whole business.”


—Ilana Herzig