Founder of Portugal’s Museu Coleção Berardo Arrested on Fraud Charges

July 1st, 2021

José “Joe” Berardo, Portugal’s top art collector and the founder of Lisbon’s Museu Coleção Berardo, was arrested June 29 on fraud and money-laundering charges stemming from allegations that he moved high-value artworks into a trust in order to protect them from creditors. The seventy-six-year-old business tycoon was hauled in during a police sweep of more than fifty residences and businesses and is expected to appear in court within forty-eight hours of his arrest.

Berardo, whose museum draws visitors from across the world with its acclaimed collection of contemporary works, including major paintings by Joan Miró and Piet Mondrian, has been under investigation since April 2019, when three Portuguese banks filed suit against him alleging he had defaulted on a total of $1.2 billion in loans he had taken out under the pretext that they were for businesses with which he was connected. The three claimants are Novo Banco, Portuguese Commercial Bank, and the state-owned Caixa Geral de Depósitos (CGD), the last of which claims to have been defrauded of $521 million (and is itself currently facing accusations from the prosecutor’s office that it acted in bad faith in making the loans, which the office has said “may constitute the practice of crime”).

In May 2019, Berardo told the Portuguese parliament that he had accrued no personal debt, having borrowed the funds in the names of three separate holding companies, and was reported to have burst into laughter at the suggestion that banks might seize art from the museum’s 900-piece collection, which he had put up as collateral in order to secure the loans. A few months later, the banks seized the entire collection and handed over the safeguarding of the works to the state. The museum has since continued to operate and was recently named one of the hundred most visited museums in the world in 2020.