A spokesman for Spain's Culture Ministry said yesterday that Picasso's "Guernica" will probably be in Madrid by October after more than 40 years abroad.

But officials at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where the painting has been on loan since 1939, were not so sure. "It is certainly premature to say that the painting will be returned to Spain by October," said Luisa Kreisberg, a member of the museum's staff.

The huge painting symbolically depicts the German bombing of the town of Guernica -- the Basque national shrine -- during the Spanish Civil War.

The spokesman for the Spanish ministry said the optimism in Madrid was the result of recent meeting between Spanish Culture Minister Inigo Cavero and Richard Oldenburg, director of the Museum of Modern Art.

"The discussions are continuing," Kreisberg said, "and we're hoping that it will soon be resolved. For about a year now, this has been going on and these discussions are continuing. We're hoping that it will soon be resolved."

Kreisberg said the most recent negotiations took place in Paris in late June. Picasso's heirs, representatives of the Spanish government and Oldenburg participated.

According to Picasso's will, the painting was to be returned to Spain once democracy was restored.

The Culture Ministry spokesman said a room at the Prado Museum in Madrid was being prepared for the canvas.