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Posted by portugalpress on February 06, 2014
Christie’s cancels sale of Miró artwork amid controversy in Portugal

Portuguese government thwarted in what culture-buffs condemn as “the worst deal in the world”

It was destined to cost the State as much as €50 million but such was the zeal to sell 85 surrealist paintings – originally purchased at vastly inflated prices by disgraced BPN bank – that policymakers continued undaunted. Legal pressure, political outrage and even a 9,200-strong petition weren’t going to get in their way. And two Portuguese courts agreed with them: “Sell, sell, sell!” What none foresaw was the strength of moral outrage that even an auction house can appreciate.

Two hours before bidding was due to start on Portugal’s “trove” of paintings by Catalan artist Joan Miró on Tuesday, Christie’s auction house in London announced that “legal uncertainties” meant it was “not able to safely offer the works for sale”.

“We have a responsibility to our buyers to be sure that legal title can transfer to them without issue,” read a statement from the world-famous establishment.

It was a moment of triumph for all those who had worked so hard to block the auction – particularly former minister of culture and Socialist deputy Gabriela Canavilhas.

“Art should not be treated like currency,” she told Bloomberg Businessweek when the fight to keep the Mirós for Portugal gathered strength last month. “It is treating art worse than a dog.”

But the arguments were not just highly-principled. There was a lot of money-making sense behind them, reports the news channel.

Socialist party deputy and former actress Inês de Medeiros (daughter of respected maestro António Victorino de Almeida) explained: “Introducing close to 100 Mirós in the market in one go will undervalue the collection and all other Mirós in the market right now.

“Selling Mirós as one would sell industrial supplies simply doesn’t make sense,” she stressed. “This is the worst deal in the world.”

Medeiros’ comments came after a Correio da Manhã story previewed that, whatever happened, Portugal looked set to lose around €46.6 million – as the paintings had cost bankrupt BPN nigh on €82.5 million when they had originally been purchased, yet Christie’s valuation came in at less than half that, at €35.9 million.

Another valid point came from Lisbon gallerist Cabral Nunes of the Colectivo Multimédia Perve who claimed that the as-yet-unseen Miró collection would earn as much as the government expected from the sale “in just two years” if it stayed in the country and went on exhibition.

Money made at auction would be “negligible”, he said, and “disappear immediately”. “It won’t represent a profit for the country.”

It was Nunes who also raised the query as to whether the auction was even legal. Had the paintings been through the “correct procedure” when they left Portugal bound for UK?

“There is a question here that has to be explained fully by Parliament,” he said.

Two legal bids later – despite the massive petition he started in January – and it would seem that the courts didn’t agree with him, but Christie’s wasn’t taking any chances, particularly after the Lisbon administrative court judges commented that Culture secretary Jorge Xavier Barreto’s decision to send the paintings to London without “proper authorisation” was “manifestly illegal”.

Barreto was bemused by this latter point. Can a secretary of state “determine a matter that is not within his competence,” he asked journalists, reiterating the government’s mantra that “keeping the Miró collection in Portugal is not a priority”.

What is much more important, he said, is minimising the debt of BPN.

“The money has to come from somewhere,” he added. “I calculate that the Portuguese don’t want us to go looking for €35-40 million from somewhere else. From Health? From Education?”

Leaving the possibility for a second auction open, Barreto said the final decision was up to Parvalorem and Parups, the two state companies set up to sanitise the “toxic activities” of beleaguered BPN.

Meantime, the 85 Miró works stay firmly under wraps. The tragedy is that since their purchase from a private collection in Japan between 2003 and 2006, the extraordinary works have languished in storage, never having been displayed in Portugal.

Quizzed on their worth when BPN went belly-up, the bank’s former chief executive officer José Oliveira e Costa told a parliamentary hearing: “They were a good deal. Those paintings are money, don’t forget that.”

But Correio da Manhã led their front page on Tuesday this week alleging the purchase price involved unaccounted millions which, it claims, serious crimes squad DCIAP is investigating.

Nonetheless, many of the works are “exceptional”, including ‘Painting’ from 1935, expected to make as much as €3.8 million under the hammer, and ‘Women and Birds’, 1968, valued at up to €8.4 million.

Before it got wind of the legal uncertainties, Christie’s described the incoming collection as “one of the most extensive and impressive offerings of works by the artist ever to come to auction”.

Portugal’s own Joe Berardo, president of the Fundação de Arte Moderna e Contemporânea Coleção Berardo, said he was even “interested” in bidding for some of them – but couldn’t possibly buy them all.

“No one would, not even if they had the money. These paintings will never be together like this again and it’s a shame that we had this ‘jackpot’ that, by order of the Finance Ministry, stayed in a vault and was never exposed,” he told Público newspaper.

As Gabriela Canavilhas commented, “it is another proof that this government thinks only in accounting terms and values nothing else.”

Despite Tuesday’s dramatic events in London, the paintings’ future remains uncertain. Rebuffing calls for his resignation, Jorge Barreto Xavier declared: “If the Portuguese want to keep the paintings, someone has to pay for them”. But as Lisbon artist Ana Pérez-Quiroga pointed out, taxpayers’ money was used to ‘rescue’ BPN so “morally” the people of Portugal already own them.