Picasso's handyman ordered to return £50 million 'lost' artworks

The painter’s handyman and his wife (below) claimed that they had been given the paintings and sketches by Picasso’s wife, Jaqueline in the early 1970s

John Lichfield
Friday 20 March 2015 13:44
Pablo Picasso's 'Die schlummernde Trinkerin' ('The Dozed Drinker') (Reuters)
Pablo Picasso's 'Die schlummernde Trinkerin' ('The Dozed Drinker') (Reuters)

The descendants of Pablo Picasso became £50m richer today, but the mystery of the 271 “lost” works by the Cubist master stored in a garage remained intact.

At a trial in Grasse last month, the painter’s handyman and his wife claimed that they had been given the paintings and sketches by Picasso’s wife, Jaqueline in the period 1970 to 1972. They said that they had stored them in a cardboard box in their garage for four decades before trying to authenticate them in 2010.

A lawyer representing Picasso’s children and grandchildren told the trial that Pierre Le Guennec, 75, and his wife Danielle, 72, were a “front” for international art thieves. He said that the idea that the pair had left works worth around £50m in a garage was a “myth”.

In its delayed verdict today, the court, in effect, rejected both versions of events. The judges convicted the elderly couple of “receiving stolen goods” but gave them only suspended two year jail sentences.

The couple immediately announced that they would appeal to try to recover the Picasso works.

The court ordered that the 271 minor pieces – unknown before 2010 – should be handed over to the Picasso Administration, which represents all the painter’s descendants. The Picasso family said that it was “satisfied” with the verdict.

Pierre Le Guennec,who was accused of receiving stolen goods after being found in possession of paintings by late Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, sits with his wife Danielle in court

The state prosecutor, Laurent Robert told last month’s trial that the couple had been “overwhelmed” by events and had never made any money from the paintings and drawings.

He said that investigator believed that the works were stolen but it had been impossible to establish when, where or by whom. He recommended five year jail sentences against the Le Guennecs.

The panel of three judges decided today that the case against them, though proven, was strong enough only to merit suspended sentences.

The disputed pieces date from the period 1900 to 1932. They include portraits of Picasso’s first wife, Olga, nine Cubist collages, a watercolour from the artist’s “blue period”; gouaches, lithographs and 200 drawings. Although they contain no major works, their total value is estimated at around £50m.

Pierre Le Guennec, an electrician, was a visiting handyman at Picasso’s last home, a sprawling state near Mougins in the Cote d’Azur. He claims that in 1970-2 – just before the painter’s death - Jacqueline Picasso gave him an unsolicited gift of a cardboard box containing 180 small works by the artist and a notebook with 91 drawings.

“For the most part, they were sketches and torn scraps, which didn’t really attract my attention,” he told the trial last month. “If we had wanted to make money by selling them under our coats, we could have done so. But we never did.”

People look at the Guernica painting by Pablo Picasso at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid on November 16, 2011.

In earlier interviews with French media, Mr Le Guennec said that he had often chatted with Picasso over coffee and cake. “One evening, I was leaving my work, when Madame handed me a little package saying: ‘This is for you’,” he said.

The presiding judge, Jean-Christophe Bruyère, said kast month: “Picasso was at the height of his powers and you weren’t even bothered enough to look inside? You ignored it for 40 years. Leaving aside any financial value, did you not even attach any sentimental value to the works? Didn't you want to hang any of them in your home?”

Mr Le Guennec replied: “I wanted to be discreet.”

In 2010, however, the couple took the works to Paris to have them authenticated by the artist’s son Claude Picasso. Instead, they were seized and Mr Le Guennec and his wife were accused of receiving stolen goods.

Jean-Jacques Neuer, a lawyer representing the Picasso family, told last month’s trial that the Le Guennecs were actually a front for an “international art laundering” gang. Stolen works that could not be sold were given to Mr Le Guennec to authenticate “because he had a relationship with Picasso.”

“The myth of the little electrician was born,” he said.

The couple’s story of the sudden gift did not make sense, Mr Neuer said. “You have to believe imagine that Picasso kept hold of the works for 70 years and suddenly decided to give the lot away.”

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