Criminal investigation opens into Portugal’s Miró sale fiasco

Lisbon’s DIAP (department of penal action) has opened a criminal investigation into the machinations behind the Portuguese government’s catastrophic attempts to sell 85 paintings by celebrated Spanish artist Joan Miró as a way of recouping financial losses over the BPN banking scandal.

Under the spotlight are multiple State entities, secretary of state for Culture Jorge Xavier Barreto, the Finance Ministry and Christie’s auction house.

According to Diário Económico, the probe follows a complaint “presented by a private individual” and centres on the so-called “illegal exit of 84 paintings and one sculpture” as well as the whole process surrounding the works’ inventory and classification before the abortive sale.

As readers may recall, the Miró furore began in February last year when the government insisted – against howls of outrage from culture-buffs – that the collection had to be sold, no matter how much money was being lost in the process.
The nation’s media explained that the paintings – some of which are considered exceptional – were bought at vastly elevated prices, so the “sale” would effectively cost the government around €50 million.

Culture secretary Barreto slammed critics after the sale fell at the 11th hour due to Christie’s concern over “legal uncertainties”, saying the reason for offloading the collection was “the urgent need to minimise the debt of BPN”: “The money has to come from somewhere,” he said. “I do not think the Portuguese people want us to go looking for €35 million-€40 million somewhere else. From health? education?”

It was a threat that may now work to his disadvantage as the investigation gets underway.

After the first sale was stopped, a second was mooted but simply never transpired and the works eventually limped home to their ‘secure storage facility’ in Lisbon’s CGD bank, costing the government a small fortune in insurance payments.

A petition raised by Lisbon galerist Cabral Nunes was pivotal in “saving” the Miró’s – although two bids for injunctions failed.

Nonetheless, Lisbon administrative court judges commented after dismissing the bids that Barreto’s role in sending the works to London “without proper authorisation” was “manifestly illegal”.

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