LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Portugal is hoping a master of surrealism can help taxpayers recoup some of the millions they lost rescuing a failed bank.
The government is selling 85 works by Spanish artist Joan Miro that became public property when Banco Portugues de Negocios was nationalized in 2008.
Christie's in London, which is handling the two-day sale starting Tuesday, describes the collection as "one of the most extensive and impressive offerings of works by the artist ever to come to auction."
The auction has stirred controversy, however, with some Portuguese demanding the trove be exhibited. Hours before the auction was due to start, a Lisbon judge denied the main opposition Socialist Party's request for an injunction to stop the sale.
The government says the bailed-out country's austerity drive has left it short of cash for spending on culture, and it says the Miro collection is not one of its priorities. Portugal needed a 78 billion euro ($105 billion) international rescue in 2011 to spare it from bankruptcy.
Miro was a senior figure in the surrealist movement in the 1920s and went on to establish himself as a sculptor and ceramicist during a seven-decade career. He is credited with influencing a generation of abstract expressionists, including American artist Jackson Pollock.
Two of the Spanish artist's oil paintings are expected to fetch the highest bids, according to Christie's: "Women and Birds" from 1968, which has an estimated sale price of 4-to-7 million pounds ($6.5 million to $11.5 million), and "Painting," valued between 2.5 million and 3.5 million pounds ($4 million to $5.7 million). The current auction record for a Miro is almost $37 million, paid for "Painting (Blue Star)" in 2012.
Other countries have offloaded their failed banks' art. The collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Bank of Ireland and South Korean savings banks have brought works by big-name artists to market in recent years.
Like elsewhere, though, the Portuguese auction will barely make a dent in monies owed: Christie's has estimated the Miro collection at around 36 million euros ($48 million), but the 2008 collapse of Banco Portugues de Negocios left taxpayers at least 3.4 billion euros out of pocket.
The Lisbon trial of 15 people allegedly to blame for the bank's collapse, amid allegations of corruption, fraud and mismanagement, is three years old.