A priceless gift or grand theft Pablo?

Electrician is under scrutiny after producing 60 million euros worth of Picasso works

For more than 40 years, a retired electrician living in a small village in southern France has been storing 271 authentic Picassos with an estimated worth of more than 60 million euros. After trying to get them authenticated in Paris, he and his wife now find themselves accused of theft by the artist's family, while the artworks have been seized and are being kept in storage at a police station that specializes in art crimes, until a judge reaches a verdict.

The story began on January 14 of this year, when Claude Picasso, the painter's son and the administrator of his legacy, received a surprising letter at his Paris office. A man named Pierre Le Guennec was asking him for a certificate of authenticity for 26 previously unknown Picasso artworks. The petition included several photographs of mediocre quality of the art in question. Then, on April 30, Claude Picasso received another batch of bad photos and another letter assuring him that these were also the work of Picasso. He was asked once more to provide a certificate of authenticity.

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According to the newspaper Libération, which broke the story, Picasso's son was intrigued by the missives, and got in touch with Le Guennec - who is aged 71, and lives in Mouans-Sartoux, a village in Côte d'Azur - to ask him for a face-to-face interview. Claude told him that he could not establish the real origin of the paintings, or indeed their value, unless he saw them in person.

On September 9, Le Guennec and his wife showed up in Paris with a suitcase. To the amazement of Claude Picasso, as well as several art experts in the room, the couple pulled out notebooks filled with drawings; lithographs; ink portraits of Picasso's first wife, Olga Khokhlova; Cubist collages that were in themselves worth ¤40 million; watercolors from his "Blue Period;" sketches of hands; caricatures; and landscapes. All of the works were produced between 1900 and 1932, the artist's most productive and innovative period.

After examining the contents of the suitcase for three hours, the team of experts concluded that nobody in the world could have imitated so many techniques so perfectly, and that they were indeed faced with an unexpected mountain of authentic "picassos" that nobody else knew existed. And then came the inevitable question. How did Le Guennec happen to have come by all this material?

Le Guennec said that during the last three years of Picasso's life - he died in 1973 - the Frenchman had put in the electrical wiring in the artist's homes in Cannes and Mougins. The electrician said he installed several burglar alarms, among other things. The work inside the suitcase was a gift to him from Picasso shortly before his death, he said. But Le Guennec told the police another version of events, according to Libération. On that occasion he said that it was Picasso's last wife, Jacqueline de Vallaurais - who died in 1986 - that had given him the gift.

Picasso's six heirs have now decided to initiate legal proceedings against the electrician, whom they accuse of theft. The artist's family figures it is impossible for Picasso, who was obsessed with keeping everything, to have given away such a vast amount of his own work - most of it undated, some of it incomplete, and none of it dedicated.

Claude Picasso, born of the relationship between the artist and Françoise Gilot, told Libération: "He always kept everything: metro tickets, the tickets to a play or a bullfight... Even the string around the mail he received each day... He thought that everything might be useful. Nearly 200,000 objects of his have been preserved and inventoried. [...] For him to just give a gift like this does not make any sense. All that was part of his life. He was generous. But he always dated and dedicated his presents. And Jacqueline might have given away a postcard or a book, but all that... It's out of place."

For now, the police have the artistic treasures under lock and key, in the central offices of the branch of the force in charge of cultural goods trafficking, in Nanterre. As for the electrician and his wife, they are facing a long legal battle with Picasso's heirs.

The hyphothesis of the lawyers as to why the couple may have waited until now to reveal their haul of artworks is simple: to avoid a jail sentence, given that the statute of limitations for the alleged theft will have expired.

"Before anything else happens, we must recover these works for the sake of art history," one of the Picasso family lawyers is quoted as saying in Libération.

The retired electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife, pictured this week at their house in Mouans-Sartoux, in the south of France.
The retired electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife, pictured this week at their house in Mouans-Sartoux, in the south of France.AFP
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