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The art of bankruptcy

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Portugal tries to sell 85 Miró masterpieces to raise cash.

Lot 152: Femmes et oiseaux, 1968, oil on canvas…” Estimated value: £4 million to £7 million pounds (between €4.8 and €8.45M). The painting, a masterpiece by Joan Miró, never made it to auction. On 4 February, Christie’s cancelled the sale of 85 works by the Catalan artist the very day it was set to begin. There’s a story behind Lot 152, a very European one, of a country in crisis, a bank in the red and a collection of masterpieces that had ended up amid toxic assets.

The country is Portugal, which is laboriously recovering from its worst ever crisis and is now attempting to use a treasure of abstract colours and lines to redress its coffers.

In 2008 the government, then led by the socialist José Socrates, decided to bail out the Banco Português de Negócios (BPN). The private bank was riddled with debt, insolvent by €800 million, and burdened by bad governance. Its president, José Olivera e Costa, was locked away for tax fraud, money laundering, forgery and abuse of credit. How much the Portuguese taxpayer had to fork out for the bank’s bailout has never been officially disclosed.

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