In a dramatic eleventh-hour decision on Tuesday, Christie’s in London decided to postpone indefinitely an auction of 85 paintings by Mallorcan artist Joan Miró owned by the Portuguese state.
In a statement issued just two hours before the sale was due to start, the auction house said it was making the decision because of “legal uncertainties” surrounding the deal. Christie’s emphasized that it did not wish to enter into the argument over who was right in the dispute over the paintings between the Portuguese government, on the one hand, and the heritage department and opposition, on the other.
The auction house limited itself to saying that in the present circumstances it was impossible to guarantee the security of its clients’ purchases.
The decision adds a new chapter to the already controversial — and at times almost surreal — auction of the 85 paintings, which had a starting price of 35 million euros but could fetch as much as 70 million.
The works have been in the hands of the Portuguese government since 2008, when it nationalized the failing Banco Português de Negócios bank, which had bought them two years earlier. On Monday the country’s heritage department issued a news release making public its disagreement with the government’s sale of the paintings, saying they represented a great opportunity to develop Portugal’s cultural and tourism sectors. It also warned the paintings may have left Portugal in an irregular, if not illegal, way since nobody had informed the department about it.
Also on Monday a group of opposition deputies went to the Attorney General’s Office to file a suit aiming to urgently halt the auction, though a court later ruled it to be legal. The deputies have promised to appeal the decision.
Over the last few months a cultural movement encompassing intellectuals, gallery owners and art experts has mobilized against the auction, collecting 10,000 signatures and accusing the government of treating Portugal’s artistic heritage as mere financial merchandise.