Legal wrangles have thwarted debt-ridden Portugal’s attempt to raise money by auctioning a collection of works by Spanish artist Joan Miro.
The sale of 85 pieces by the Surrealist was one of the highlights of a two-day auction of Impressionist and modern art in London, beginning yesterday.
But auction house Christie’s called off the sale a few hours before it was due to start, citing legal concerns.
Earlier in the day, a Lisbon judge denied a request from Portugal’s main opposition Socialist Party for an injunction to stop the sale of the public property from a nationalised bank, which was expected to raise at least €36 million (£29.8m).
But Christie’s said in a statement that the court challenge created “legal uncertainties” which could bring questions about future ownership rights.
The Miro collection, estimated to be worth more than €35m, came into state hands in 2008 when Portugal nationalised the failed bank Banco Portugues de Negocios (BPN) that had owned them.
More than 9,200 people have signed an online petition to keep it in Portugal, despite the drastic austerity measures imposed in the past three years under an international bailout.
“The legal uncertainties created by this ongoing dispute mean that we are not able to safely offer the works for sale,” Christie’s said, only hours before the two-day sale was to start.
The paintings are being offered by the state holding company Parvalorem, which is in charge of minimising the impact of BPN’s old debts and bad loans on public accounts.
The court ruled the sale could not be stopped, but noted that the state culture secretary’s decision had not sought proper authorisation to send the paintings to London last week.
The most highly valued piece in the collection, Femmes et oiseaux (“Women and Birds”) dating from 1968, was expected to fetch between €4.8m and €8.3m.
Critics of the planned sale said the state had ignored “the immeasurable immaterial value” of the collection to Portugal.
“We are certain that any proper classification by experts would have not allowed most of the paintings to leave Portugal,” said Gabriela Canavilhas, a Socialist parliamentarian and one of the authors of the appeal.
“This is another proof that this government thinks only in accounting terms and values nothing else,” she said, adding some of the paintings could be auctioned in the future, but only within the legal framework.
Miro was a senior figure in the Surrealist movement in the 1920s and went on to establish himself as a sculptor and ceramicist during a seven-decade career.
He is credited with influencing a generation of abstract expressionists, including American artist Jackson Pollock.
Other countries have offloaded their failed banks’ art. The collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Bank of Ireland and South Korean savings banks have brought works by big-name artists to market in recent years.
The Portugese government said the bailed-out country’s austerity drive has left it short of cash for spending on culture, and it says the Miro collection is not one of its priorities.
But as in other nations, the Portuguese auction would have barely make a dent in the country’s debt. Portugal needed a €78 billion international rescue in 2011 to spare it from bankruptcy. The 2008 collapse of BPN left taxpayers at least €3.4bn out of pocket. The Lisbon trial of 15 people allegedly to blame for the bank’s collapse, amid allegations of corruption, fraud and mismanagement, is three years old.
Christie’s sale, entitled The Art of the Surreal, with paintings by Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali and other famous Surrealists, is due to finish today.