Portugal to sell off its Mirós

The Lisbon government has kicked up a storm with decision to auction off 85 works by painter The collection came into state hands after the nationalization of a failed bank

'Femme et oiseaux' (1968) by Joan Miró could fetch over eight million euros at auction.
'Femme et oiseaux' (1968) by Joan Miró could fetch over eight million euros at auction.

Next month Christie's in London will auction off an unusual collection of art: a set of 85 works by Mallorcan artist Joan Miró that, owing to chance, fraud and financial disasters, has been in the hands of the Portuguese state since 2008.

There are paintings, collages, drawings, gouache works and large-format pieces. None of the works — which include some genuine masterpieces according to experts on the artist — have ever been exhibited in Portugal, despite the fact that they have been in the country — first in the offices in one bank, then in those of another — since 2006. Valued at 35 million euros, they could go for as much as 80 million.

The announcement of their sale has unleashed a wave of protest among Portuguese artistic, cultural and political circles. But so far the initiatives launched to halt it — a parliamentary proposal by the left that has been rejected by the conservative majority, and a petition by an independent platform that has collected more than 7,000 signatures — have failed to stop the auction, which is scheduled for February 5 or 6. The peculiar Portuguese history of the works begins in 2006 when the Banco Português de Negócios (BPN) bought them from a retired Japanese businessman, Kazumasa Katsuta. The intention of the bank was not to set up a cultural center with the works, but rather to hold them as an investment.

In 2007 the then-president of BPN, the controversial José Oliveira Costa, who is currently facing corruption charges, got in touch with contemporary art expert and director of the Museu Colecção Berardo de Lisboa, Pedro Lapa: "He called me, showed me the paintings and we talked about doing an exhibition with the works. Personally, I loved the idea. But already by then the bank's situation was beginning to fall apart. After that he didn't call me again. The next time I saw Oliveira Costa it was on TV, handcuffed, on the way to jail."

The BPN bank bought the collection from a retired Japanese businessman

The bank did indeed collapse: in the fall of 2008, with the hurricane of the crisis already blowing around Europe, the Portuguese government nationalized it, along with all its possessions and debts, after injecting 700 million euros of emergency funds. A few days later Oliveira Costa was accused of, among other things, money laundering, falsifying documents and tax fraud. Sixteen other BPN directors were accused along with him in a political-media scandal that even affected Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva.

Meanwhile, the works languished, albeit very well looked after, in the offices of Caixa Geral de Depósitos, the public bank that was created out of BPN's assets. "Some of them, of course, travelled to New York for an exhibition at MoMA in 2009, but the Portuguese public was never able to appreciate what, at heart, was theirs because it had been nationalized. The collection spans the whole career and all the periods of the artist," Lapa adds.

The works include a 1968 oil painting entitled Femme et oiseaux, which has a starting price of 4.8 million euros, and Painting, which starts at three million. After the nationalization Lapa again tried to organize the continually postponed exhibition, but the government did not support the idea.

In 2011, at the insistence of the "Troika" - the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank — BPN was reprivatized and sold to Angola's BIC bank for 40 million euros. But the works and other assets, along with a mountain of suspect loans and disastrous deals, stayed in the hands of the Portuguese state. The buyers only took the healthy part of the institution, leaving the "bad bank" with the state. The negative numbers continue to pour out of the hole left by BPN, which the Portuguese press reports may be as large as seven billion euros.

To balance the books and wipe out some of that immense debt, the government decided to sell off the collection, claiming it didn't expect such a backlash. Secretary of state for culture Jorge Barreto tried to make the government's position clear in a brief note sent to Público newspaper: "The acquisition of the Miró collection is not considered a priority in the current context of the organization of the state collections."

The next time I saw the BPN director, it was on TV, on the way to prison"

But the argument does not convince opponents of the sale, who say the works are now the property of the entire Portuguese people. Former Socialist Culture Minister Gabriela Cavanillas says there is still time to stop the auction, but doing so requires a certain "goodwill" that does not seem to exist in a government that, she says, "treats art as if it were trash."

Lapa says there is a chance that the collection might be acquired in its entirety and travel to a Middle Eastern country, leaving already impoverished Portugal even harder up.

"I understand that the country does not have money to acquire works of art," Lapa adds. "But this collection is already here, it is already ours. Nothing needs to be acquired, as the secretary of state says, as it has already been acquired. The Portuguese state cannot negotiate with art like it would with a banker."

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