As a jury at Snaresbrook Crown Court in east London was about to retire to consider its verdict, Peter Scott, 67, changed his plea to guilty to conspiring to handle the painting, Tete de Femme, stolen in a daring raid at gunpoint on a gallery last year.
Scott was granted bail until sentencing by Judge Andrew Brooks who warned him: "This is an extremely grave and serious matter which attracts a substantial term of imprisonment." Speaking outside the court after yesterday's five-minute hearing, Scott said that he was a "victim of circumstance".
Scott was the author of a book, Gentleman Thief - Recollections of a Cat Burglar, which recounted his 30-year career of thefts from stars including Sophia Loren. But during the five-day court case, he insisted he had "retired" from crime 10 years ago to become a celebrity tennis coach.
He claimed he had been an innocent go-between in a private deal arranged by Ronald Spring, a 70-year-old business accomplice, and another friend who was the man who robbed the Lefevre Gallery in Mayfair in March last year.
Scott changed his original not guilty plea after the jury heard that he met the robber, who cannot be named for legal reasons, shortly after the raid and passed the work to Ronald Spring.
He had earlier told the court that he had known the raider for a number of years and regarded him as a "surrogate son". He said that anything he had done had been out of loyalty.
However, Ronald Spring, who earlier admitted handling the Picasso and agreed to give evidence against Scott, said that Scott had handed him a suitcase containing the stolen painting on the evening of the raid and demanded money. Spring, a former legal executive who is also awaiting sentencing, said: "He told me he wanted between pounds 70,000 and pounds 75,000 within seven days."
Scott was caught in a sting operation a week after the theft. Undercover officers moved in to arrest him as he walked away from a rendezvous with Spring at the Sherlock Holmes Hotel in central London. Although he told the court he was not interested in any money from the deal, he was holding a plastic carrier bag of cash and smiling.
After the hearing, Scott said the weight of evidence against him had forced him to change his plea. "I was intellectually and morally convinced that after the prosecution's very skilful cross-examination, I could not continue to sustain this not guilty plea without jeopardising my 10 years of honesty, decency and hard work," he said.
Detective Constable Andrew Kennedy, of the National Crime Squad, said he thought that Scott was driven by publicity. "I think he revels in infamy. He's a likeable rogue, but having said that he is still someone who has committed a series of very serious crimes throughout his life."
Sat behind the wheel of a Jaguar, Scott in his heyday was the ultimate "catch me if you can" villain, teasing the men of Scotland Yard. His daring exploits earned him the tag "the Human Fly".
He arrived in London from his hometown of Belfast aged 22 and rapidly became part of the underworld, serving a burglary apprenticeship under master thief George "Taters" Chatham. The two were life-long friends and accomplices.
Lauren Bacall, Shirley MacLaine, Vivienne Leigh and Zsa Zsa Gabor all lost their jewels to Scott's crowbar and stealth. He also broke into the homes of Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Bancroft, Shirley Bassey, Maria Callas and Ginger Rogers, but dismisses them from his hall of fame after "failing to find anything worth stealing".