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Portugal Tries and Fails to Sell Art to Help Pay Debts

by Jillian Steinhauer on February 6, 2014

The Portuguese flag, Miro-ified

The Portuguese flag, Miró-ified (image by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Can and should a government sell art to help pay off its debts? That’s been the question driving ongoing discussions about Detroit, but it’s also being raised across the Atlantic, where 85 works by Joan Miró were withdrawn from a Christie’s auction this week.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, the Miró collection was to be sold on behalf of the Portuguese government as part of Christie’s Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist auction. The group includes mostly works on paper but also a number of bigger, more valuable paintings, which would have constituted “a sizable portion” of the sale. “There were some nice paintings there,” dealer David Nahmad sagely told the Journal. The Portuguese government is more than €200 billion (~$272 billion) in debt, and it was hoping to put a very small dent in that by raising an estimate $49 million from the sale.

The government inherited the works from Banco Português de Negócios, which was nationalized during the 2008 financial crisis. The bank, in turn, had bought them from a Japanese collector two years prior. The works have never been shown publicly in Portugal; the government quietly shipped them to Christie’s London without putting them on display.

That’s part of what made some Portuguese citizens and officials so upset. Gallerist Cabral Nunes told the New York Times that he found the government’s behavior “unbelievable.” Nunes helped started an online petition against the sale, which has garnered more than 9,800 signatures. Addressed to the president, attorney general, prime minster, and assembly of Portugal, it accuses the government of shortsightedness in terms of both the economics of the sale and the state’s obligation to the Portuguese people. An excerpt (via Google Translate):

… the truth is it’s a ridiculousness in that, firstly, selling “wholesale” in such a quantity of works lowers the value, so it would be wise not to do an operation like this …. This in itself justifies the greatest prudence towards the disposal of this body of work. This news clearly shows the level of how to decide things at the moment in the country: Is it possible to not realize the enormity of this act of sale? And who does not understand that this is a 2nd theft of national treasures? It is these pictures belong to us all, as we were all called to pay the bill for the excesses of the Portuguese Bank Business (BPN). The minimum requirement is that the state does not sell these assets (and much less to do this time of international crisis and thus per set). Moreover, these works, staying in Portugal, will generate far greater revenue than what can be collected with the sale, immediately, in that are indeed important and that their sum made ​​available to the public in a museum space, attract international tourism art and culture for decades, generating benefits for the local economy and tax revenues, for they enable the development of partnerships with international museum organizations, publications and studies that contribute largely to the intellectual development of our country.

The opposition Socialist Party challenged the sale in court last month, with the help of the national prosecutor’s office, which took the matter to Lisbon’s high court. The court ruled that the sale could proceed, although it also said that proper authorization had not been obtained for sending the works to London. Then, hours before the sale, Christie’s announced that it would withdraw the Mirós. “While the recent injunction to stop the sale was not granted, the legal uncertainties created by this ongoing dispute mean that we are not able to safely offer the works for sale,” Christie’s said in a statement to the Times.

But the government hasn’t promised anything to its petitioners, and a source told the Journal that there’s been no request to bring the artworks back home. The state is perhaps biding its time, hoping the furor will die down so it can resume efforts to bring in some relatively small amount of cash. In the meantime, the Christie’s sale went ahead without the Mirós and raised £176.9 million (~$288 million), the highest total for any art auction ever held in London.

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