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Salvador Dalí's remains exhumed in surreal twist to paternity suit claim

Visitors stand near the tomb of Salvador Dalí inside Dalí Museum Theatre in Figueres, Spain Picture: Hernan Munoz/AP

Salvador Dalí's embalmed remains have been exhumed in order to find genetic samples that could settle whether one of the founding figures of surrealism fathered a girl decades ago.

Pilar Abel, a 61-year-old tarot card reader, claims her mother had an affair with Dalí while working as a domestic helper in the Spanish town of Figueres, where the artist was born and later returned with his Russian wife Gala.

Catalonia's High Court said that biological samples were found 27 years after Dalí's body was embalmed and interred in a museum dedicated to the painter's memory in Figueres.

The samples need to travel to a legal medicine lab in Madrid for analysis, which could take weeks, officials said.

The sensitive exhumation by a team of forensic experts followed two decades of court battles by Ms Abel. In June, a Madrid judge finally ruled that a DNA test should be performed to find out whether her allegations were true.

"I am amazed and very happy because justice may be delivered," Ms Abel said when the judge ruled in her favour.

She said a desire to honour her mother's memory was motivating her paternity lawsuit: "I have fought a long time for this and I think I have the right to know."

Her lawyer, Enrique Blanquez, said a judicial victory for Ms Abel would give her a chance to seek a quarter of Dalí's estate in further lawsuits, in accordance with inheritance rules in Spain's Catalonia region.

Dali and his wife had no children of their own although Gala – whose name at birth was Elena Ivanovna Diakonova and who died seven years before the painter – had a daughter from an earlier marriage to French poet Paul Eluard.

Upon his death in 1989 aged 84, Dalí bestowed his estate to the Spanish state. His body was buried in his hometown's local theatre, which had been rebuilt to honour the artist in the 1960s. The building now hosts the Dalí Theatre Museum.

After the gates of the premises closed on Thursday, a 1.5-ton stone slab was removed to open the crypt with Dalí's remains.

In order to respect the privacy of the artist's remains and to lessen the risk of contaminating any biological samples, only five people – a judge, three forensic experts and an assistant – stayed during the hour and 20 minutes that the coffin stayed open.

It remains to be seen if the chemicals used for preserving the artist's body have damaged his genetic information, said Narcis Bardalet, the forensic expert who embalmed Dalí back in 1989.

Regional Catalan officials previously said that experts planned to remove four teeth, some nails and the marrow of a long bone, if the corpse's condition allowed it. A coffin from a funeral home was delivered earlier in the day to the museum premises.

The public foundation that manages Dalí's estate failed to halt the exhumation but convinced the judge to reschedule it out of visiting hours.

Extra measures were taken to prevent images of the process. A marquee inside the museum's glass dome was installed to avoid any possible photography or video taken from drones.

Since the judge ordered the exhumation many have raised doubts about Ms Abel's story.

They include Joan Vehi, who started working as a carpenter for Dalí and his wife, Gala, but became a close friend of the couple and one of the painter's personal photographers.

"I've never heard of this woman, Dalí never talked to me about her, and now suddenly all this fuss," he said.

"This is self-publicity."

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