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Portugal still plans Miro art sale despite auction hitch

Cash-strapped Portugal said Wednesday it still plans to sell 85 paintings by Spanish master Joan Miro, despite having a London auction of the works cancelled at the last minute this week because of a legal dispute.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho told reporters the sale — which was expected to fetch more than 36 million euros ($49 million) to bolster the country’s battered coffers — would go ahead “in the near future” but that no date had been fixed.

The sale of the paintings was cancelled on Tuesday by Christie’s, the London auction house tapped by Lisbon to put them under the hammer.

Christie’s backed out because of a legal imbroglio in Portugal, where the opposition Socialists had lodged a challenge to the Miro auction.

Although a Portuguese court shot down the Socialists’ request on Tuesday, Christie’s decided to not go ahead after the court pointed out “irregularities” in the export of the paintings.

The Miro works became Portuguese state property following the nationalisation of the indebted BPN bank in 2008. Their sale has been met with outrage by art lovers in Portugal.

Passos Coelho said Christie’s was to blame for the aborted auction, saying the firm was responsible “for organising everything”, including the export paperwork and insurance.

“With its experience, it should have taken more care,” he said.

The prime minister said Portugal was still determined to sell the paintings — with Christie’s “or maybe other auction houses” — because it was unable to maintain the multi-million-euro cost of maintaining and securing the valuable artworks.

In May 2011, the country agreed to a programme of strict fiscal discipline in exchange for an international bailout package worth 78 billion euros.

Christie’s had described the paintings as one of the largest and most impressive Miro collections ever put up for sale.

It includes one of Miro’s most notable works, “Women and Birds”, which Christie’s has valued at between £4 million and £7 million ($6.6 million to $11.5 million, or 4.9 million to 8.5 million euros).