Hundreds of unknown Pablo Picasso works worth tens of millions of dollars have surfaced in France in the hands of a 71-year-old retired electrician who says they were gifts from the artist, the Guardian reports.
Pierre Le Guennec and his wife have come forward with 271 undocumented, never-before-seen works by Pablo Picasso estimated to be worth at least $80 million, an administrator of the artist’s estate said on Monday.
However, the new-found drawings, painted during his most creative period, are now at the heart of a legal tug-of-war between Pierre Le Guennec and the artist’s heirs who believe they must have been stolen and have filed for charges.
“No one can seriouly believe that the artist made these gifts, it’s completely crazy,” the Picasso family’s lawyer Jean-Jacques Neuer said on Monday.
Among the works are nine cubist collages worth at least $50 million, a painting from his celebrated blue period, drawings and models for some of his most important works and portraits of his first wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova.
“This electrician, who claims to have been a long-time friend, has never been heard of despite the fact we now know every detail about Picasso’s life.”
The collection of 271 paintings, drawings, sketches and lithographs, many of which were previously unknown, dates from 1900 to 1932, the artist’s years as a struggling youth freshly arrived in France from Barcelona, up until the first major retrospectives of his work.
French art experts have been poring over the unexpected treasures since they were discovered nearly three months ago. The story of how it was uncovered is sensational and is now at the heart of a police investigation into how the works first disappeared and then remained hidden for almost 40 years.
This year, on September 9th, Pierre Le Guennec travelled from his home on the Côte d’Azur to Paris and made his way to the offices of the Picasso Administration, which manages the artist’s legacy in rue Volney in the second arrondissement.
He was carrying an unremarkable suitcase and was accompanied by his wife who, like him, is in her 70s. Shown into the office of Claude Picasso, 63, the late painter’s son, who represents the artist’s heirs and estate, he opened the case he had with him and produced 175 different works that, he claimed, were by Picasso.
At first, those gathered in Claude Picasso’s office suspected they were forgeries. But on close examination many of them were found to carry a numbering system known only to the painter.
Le Guennec says he worked installing alarm systems at several of Picasso’s residences, including a villa in the Riviera city of Cannes, during the three years up until the artist’s death in 1973.
He said he was given all of the works, either by Picasso’s late wife or by the artist himself, according to a police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is under way.
“The master and madam made a gift to me. They gave them to me, as they might have given anything else,” he said. “They’re not paintings – or I would have needed a truck. It’s a few drawings and sketch fragments, that’s all.”
“I’m aware they must be worth something – but I wasn’t interested in that. If I was I would have tried to sell them long ago,” he said.
He said he came forward with the works after a spell of ill-health, for fear his children would have trouble accounting for them.
But Picasso’s heirs dispute the claim, not least because the artist was known to jealously guard his own works, often proving reluctant to sell and sometimes even buying back favoured pieces from which he had been separated.
And those gifts which Picasso did make were always signed, they claim.
“To give away such a large quantity, that’s unheard-of. It doesn’t hold water,” Claude Picasso, the artist’s son and the administrator of his estate, said. “This was a part of his life.”
Picasso’s son was first alerted in January when he received 26 photographs of works purported to be by his father, sent to him by Le Guennec.
Along with the poor quality pictures, he received a letter asking him to authenticate the works. Another set of 39 images followed a few months later.
Once experts had authenticated all the works, Picasso’s heirs filed suit on September 23 for dealing in stolen goods. The entire collection was impounded from the couple’s Riviera home two weeks later and is being held in a secure vault near Paris by the French office for the prevention of artwork trafficking.
Le Guennec was briefly held for questioning but neither he nor his wife have so far been charged in the case, his lawyer Evelyne Rees said Monday.
“Mr Le Guennec says that if he was dealing in stolen goods, he would hardly have walked straight into the lion’s den,” by contacting the artist’s heirs, she said.
To some, the emergence of the works by the 20th century’s most renowned artist is akin to opening a time capsule, or a discovery on par with the recent publication of Mark Twain’s 100-year-dormant autobiography.
“Claude Picasso was astounded. He couldn’t believe his eyes,” said Neuer. “Just about everybody has felt that way … when you have 271 Picasso works that were never seen, never inventoried — that’s just unprecedented.”
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art says Picasso produced more than 20,000 works of art during his long career. Hundreds have been listed as missing — a number so large in part because he was so prolific.
Picasso works are among the most coveted among thieves. In May, a Picasso lithograph was stolen from a collector’s home in southeastern Marseille; days earlier, one of his paintings was taken from a Paris museum — one of the works swiped in a massive $123 million art heist.
That same month, “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” a 1932 Picasso painting of his mistress, set a world record for any work of art at auction, selling for $106.5 million at Christie’s New York. [via The Telegraph (UK) and The Guardian (UK)]