The auction of 85 paintings by Spanish artist Joan Miro by the Portuguese government has been cancelled amid legal wrangling over whether the state can sell the works to recoup the cost of bailing out a failed bank.

Portugal took over the works, estimated by Christie’s auction house to be worth $49 million US, when it seized the assets of Portugal's BPN bank, which was nationalized in 2008.

Joan Miro Portugal

A Christie's employee walks past Joan Miro's Femme et Oiseaux (Women and Birds) at the London auction house. The auction, which was to help pay for a taxpayer bailout of a defunct bank in Portugal, was cancelled. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

The sale had been due to go ahead in London on Tuesday, but Christie’s cancelled it citing a dispute before a the Portuguese court. Eighty-five works by the surrealist artist taken from a BPN collection were scheduled for auction.

The controversial sale was meant to help the government recoup some of the millions of dollars it lost rescuing the failed bank during the financial crisis. Portugal faced a default on its debt during the crisis and required a 78-billion-euro ($105 billion US) bailout.

The country says it is short of money for cultural spending because of austerity measures it implemented to get out of bankruptcy. The economy is showing signs of recovery, but Portugal still has a heavy debt burden.

Opposition wants art on public display

But opposition politicians have opposed the sale, saying the artwork should be put on public display and taking legal action to block it.

A Portuguese court rejected a request for an injunction to stop the sale by the Socialist Party, which claimed the paintings had been taken out of the country illegally.

The uncertainty over the case was enough to give Christie’s cold feet.

'We have a responsibility to our buyers to be sure that legal title can transfer to them without issue.' - Christie's auction house

"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,” the auction house said in a statement.

"We have a responsibility to our buyers to be sure that legal title can transfer to them without issue. Since the court's decision calls this into question at this time, Christie's is required to withdraw the works from sale.”

Among the works in the collection are Miro’s Women and Birds (Femmes et Oiseaux), which was expected to be sold for $6.5 million to $11.5 million and Painting: Blue Star (Peinture: Étoile Bleue), valued at between $4 million and $5.7 million.