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LISBON (Reuters) - Christie's auction house canceled the sale of 85 paintings by the Catalan Surrealist Joan Miro on Tuesday after an uproar over whether debt-ridden Portugal, their legal owner, could sell the treasures to buyers abroad.
The auctioneers withdrew them from a London sale even though a Lisbon court threw out a suit by opposition lawmakers, prosecutors and the public trying to block the offer saying the government had violated the rules on classifying the artwork.
The Miro collection, estimated at more than 35 million euros ($47 million), came into state hands in 2008 when Portugal nationalized the failed bank BPN that owned them.
More than 9,200 people have signed an online petition to keep it in Portugal, despite the drastic austerity measures imposed in the past three years under an international bailout.
"The legal uncertainties created by this ongoing dispute mean that we are not able to safely offer the works for sale," Christie's said only hours before the two-day sale was to start.
The paintings are being offered by the state holding company Parvalorem, which is in charge of minimizing the impact of BPN's old debts and bad loans on public accounts.
The court ruled the sale could not be stopped but noted that the state culture secretary's decision had not sought proper authorization to send the paintings to London last week.
The most highly valued piece in the collection, "Femmes et oiseaux (Women and Birds)" dating from 1968, was expected to fetch between 4.8 million and 8.3 million euros.
Critics of the planned sale said the state had ignored "the immeasurable immaterial value" of the collection to Portugal.
"We are certain that any proper classification by experts would have not allowed most of the paintings to leave Portugal," said Gabriela Canavilhas, a Socialist parliamentarian and one of the authors of the appeal.
"This is another proof that this government thinks only in accounting terms and values nothing else," she said, adding some of the paintings could be auctioned in the future, but only within the legal framework.
Christie's sale, entitled The Art of the Surreal, was due to go ahead on Tuesday with paintings by Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali and other famous Surrealists and finish on Wednesday. ($1 = 0.7397 euros)
additional reporting by Julia Fioretti in London; Reporting by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Axel Bugge and Tom Heneghan