Would Pablo Picasso have donated 271 works to an electrician who worked for him for a few years in southeast France?
A French court began to contemplate that question on Tuesday at the start of a three-day trial of Pierre Le Guennec and his wife, Danielle.
They claim that the artist, or his wife, gave them the 180 lithographs, collages and paintings and 91 sketchbook drawings around 1970 when Le Guennec began working as a general handyman for Picasso in his homes on or near the French Riviera.
Heirs of Picasso and a state prosecutor describe the couple's account as ridiculous. They argue that the master had a habit of autographing and signing works that he gave away, and had never given away such a massive trove. One Picasso family lawyer says the estimated worth is 60 million to 100 million euros ($68-113 million).
Le Guennec quietly kept the works in a garage for decades. Produced between 1900 and 1932, they have never been displayed publicly. If convicted for concealing stolen goods, the Le Guennecs could face up to five years in prison and fines of 375,000 euros ($424,000) or more — up to half the value of the loot.
Picasso, who died in 1973, left no will. But he did leave behind at least 70,000 works that have over the years been the subject of theft, forgery, legal disputes and secret sales. In recent weeks, news reports have emerged about efforts by his granddaughter, Marina Picasso, to quietly sell some of the works that she inherited, in part to purge painful family memories.
But an unknown trove like the Le Guennecs' is extraordinary.
The trial was shaping up largely as a case of "he said, she said" because some potential witnesses have died, hard evidence of theft 40 years ago may be hard to come by, and even the state's own case doesn't mention who may have stolen it.
Tuesday's session was devoted to questioning the two defendants and projections of the works — with cameras barred from the courtroom. Son Claude Picasso, the estate's administrator, was on hand.
Jean-Jacques Neuer, a lawyer for Claude and fellow heirs Marina and Paloma Picasso, said their primary pursuit was "the truth."
"It is the question of somebody who comes to you — or of the couple that comes to you — with unknown and uncatalogued works by Picasso," he told The Associated Press in an interview in his office near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris last week. "You have to understand what happened. It's our role to do that."
Aboit five years ago, Le Guennec began worrying about what might come of the works after his death, according to his lawyer. He wanted to avoid any legal headaches for his children, so he contacted the Picasso administration, which looks after works held by his heirs.
In September 2010, Le Guennec traveled to Paris to have the works assessed by the administration. A few days later, they were confiscated by police.
The works include a richly colored hand study; a sketch of Picasso's first wife, Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, resting an elbow in a seated pose; and a collage of a pipe and bottle.
The Le Guennecs have had differing versions about how they came to possess the art.
Pierre allegedly said that Picasso's then-wife, Jacqueline, handed him a closed box, saying, "Here, it's for you. Take it home." — and they never discussed it again. Danielle has said Picasso was tidying his studio and handed the works to her husband, who brought them home in a trash bag.
Pierre, now 75, claims to have worked at three of Picasso's properties in southern France: a Cannes villa, a chateau in Vauvenargues, and a farmhouse in Mougins, the town where Picasso died.
The state's case, based on witness accounts, suggested that Maurice Bresnu, a longtime driver for Picasso and the husband of a distant cousin of Pierre Le Guennec, had helped him get the job with Picasso. Bresnu allegedly swiped some works by the artist — but any possible legal action vanished with Bresnu's death in 1991, according to the prosecution.
A lawyer for the couple insisted they were more than acquaintances of Pablo and Jacqueline Picasso.
"I have enormous amounts of proof they were close to the Le Guennecs just as things were going badly with his (Picasso's) children," said lawyer Charles-Etienne Gudin.
"He gave them (the works) to Le Guennec to thank him for his kindness, his availability, for lending an ear ... Le Guennec bought bottles of oxygen under his own name for Picasso because he needed it to breathe," he added.
The Le Guennecs never tried, wanted or needed to sell the works, Gudin told the AP by phone last week. He quoted Pierre as saying: "You don't sell gifts."
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