A Spanish court has ordered the remains of Salvador Dali to be exhumed from his grandiose self-designed last resting place in an attempt to extract DNA for a paternity claim from a woman born in 1956.

Pilar Abel, a tarot card reader and fortune teller from Girona, a city close to Figueres in north-east Spain where both she and the artist were born, has been trying for 10 years to prove that she is his only child and, therefore, under Spanish law, heir to a quarter of his fortune. Abel claims she was conceived during a secret liaison in 1955 and that her mother, Antonia, told her on several occasions that Dalí was her father. She has said the physical resemblance is so close “the only thing I’m missing is a moustache”.

A court in Madrid said Dalí’s body should be exhumed after previous attempts to establish the truth of her claim failed. “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 said.

Dalí, who died of heart failure in 1989, was buried in a crypt under the stage of the old theatre in his home town, which he had spent years transforming into a museum to his “own genius”. It is the top tourist attraction in the region, attracting 1.3 million visitors in 2015. 

Like every other aspect of his life, there has been much debate about the sexuality of the eccentric artist who painted naked women pierced by chests of drawers and watches melting, once paraded an anteater on a leash, almost suffocated while promenading in a bronze diving helmet and transformed a model lobster into a telephone, remarking he could never understand why telephones were not preserved in ice buckets and served grilled in restaurants.

In 1929 he met the formidable Gala, a Russian woman born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova who was 10 years his senior and married to his friend Paul Éluard at the time. They married and she became his muse and business manager, but they never had children, possibly partly because she lived for much of the year in a small castle which he was only allowed to visit in her absence and with her written permission. He was shattered by her death in 1982.

Abel says she was conceived in 1955 when her mother was working for a family in Cadaqués, a fishing village near where Dalí’s family had a holiday home and which is also the setting for many of his paintings. Her mother subsequently left the village and married another man.

According to the Spanish newspaper El País, Abel first learned of her true paternity from the woman she said she thought was her paternal grandmother. Abel claims she told her: “I know you aren’t my son’s daughter and that you are the daughter of a great painter, but I love you all the same.” She also remarked that she was “odd just like your father”.

Abel won permission from the courts in 2007 for an attempt to extract DNA from traces of hair and skin clinging to Dalí’s death mask, but the results proved inconclusive. 

Later that year an attempt was made to extract DNA from material supplied by the artist’s friend and biographer, Robert Descharnes. Abel claims she never received the results of the second test, but Descharnes’ son Nicholas told the Spanish news agency Efe in 2008 that he had learned from the doctor who conducted the tests that they were negative.“There is no relationship between this woman and Salvador Dalí,” he said.

Abel’s legal claim is against the Spanish treasury and the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, because Dalí left the state and the foundation his fortune and properties, including the castle where his wife is buried. The foundation now runs three museums and controls lucrative reproduction and licensing rights for an artist whose work has been endlessly exploited in art and advertising. 

This is not Abel’s first recourse to the courts. In 2005, she tried to sue the Spanish writer Javier Cercas for €700,000 (£615,000), arguing that a character in his 2001 novel, Soldiers of Salamis, was based on her and that her reputation had suffered as a result. A judge shelved the case.

Curtis Bowman