Debt-ridden Portugal can’t come up with enough ways to boost its coffers. The government’s downsizing dogma has seen the country shedding state-controlled assets left and right. But the latest decision to sell a collection of 85 works by Spanish artist Joan Miró has been more controversial in the eyes of its citizens than any of the other selloffs – even if the $50 million-plus Portugal says it could receive from the sale to clean up its public finances could mean (though its far from certain that it would) scrapping some of the already-implemented social services cuts.
On February 4 Christie’s auction house in London cancelled the sale of the paintings, along with other works by Miró, hours before bidding was due to commence. The mood was already tense since a group of opposition lawmakers, prosecutors and the public had tried to block the offer saying the government had violated the rules on classifying the artwork. A Portuguese court had thrown out their objections hours before the auction was scheduled to take place. Though Christie’s had the last word and called the sale off because, as the auction house said, “the legal uncertainties created by this ongoing dispute mean that we are not able to safely offer the works for sale”.
The 85 works of Joan Miró returned to the government’s coffers in Lisbon three weeks later. But the imbroglio is far from over. There is a new auction scheduled to take place at Christie’s in June. The government is committed to regain state assets that were poured into the nationalized failed bank Banco Português de Negócios (BPN) in 2008, which until then was the owner of the art work. Many in the country are outraged that they haven’t had the opportunity to see the works even if they were participants in the bank’s bailout.
The most highly valued piece in the Miró collection that will go up for grabs, “Femmes et oiseaux” dating from 1968 (see image below), was expected to fetch between $6 million and $11 million; “Peinture” from 1953, carries an estimated value estimated of up to $5.8 million. Christie’s categorized the collection as “one of the most extensive and impressive offerings of works by the artist ever to come to auction.”
The president of the state holding company Parvalorem, created by the Ministry of Finance and in charge of minimizing the impact of BPN’s old debts and bad loans on public accounts, confirmed that the works were sent back to Lisbon to follow all procedures that a new auction requires. (The court that allowed the sale of the Miró collection back in February noted that the state had not sought proper authorization or export certification to send the paintings to London).
Whether the Miró collection is now part of Portugal’s cultural heritage is up to the government and Portugal’s citizens to decide. The nation must continue to repay its 2011 international bailout and the troika continues to demand reforms. The $11 billion the country has sold in assets is a small fraction of the $110 billion package it signed in May 2011. Nothing is salvageable when it comes to dealing with money leant from European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — though Portugal could get through a clear cultural message before June.