The case of the electrician and the stolen 271 Picasso artworks

May 11, 2015 - by Marilyn Z. Tomlins - 0 Comments

Picaso_self-portrait-1907

How did a retired electrician become the owner of 271 Picasso artworks worth millions of dollars, and how could he have forgotten for almost 40 years that he had them?

By Marilyn Z. Tomlins

Thursday, September 9, 2010, Claude Ruiz-Picasso, son of the late Spanish-born artist and sculptor Pablo Picasso, was waiting for a couple named Le Guennec to ring the door bell.

Claude Ruiz-Picasso (68), or Claude Picasso as he is generally known, was in the office of the Paris-based Picasso Administration. The Picasso Administration was founded in 1995 to protect the name and heritage of Pablo Picasso who had died in 1973 aged 92. Headed by Claude Picasso, it deals with the authentification of Picasso artworks and such matters as the organization of Picasso exhibitions as well as controlling the copyright and merchandising of Picasso reproductions.

With Claude Picasso was his personal assistant Christine Pinault.

Neither of the two knew more about the couple they were waiting for, Pierre and Danielle Le Guennec, than that they had in their possession some works by Pablo Picasso which they wanted authenticated.

Seven months previously on Thursday, January 14, a letter from Pierre Le Guennec had arrived at the Picasso Administration office with a request for the 26 photographs he had enclosed in the envelope to be authenticated: He claimed the photographs were of works by Picasso. In March, a second letter had arrived from Le Guennec. He had sent another 39 photographs which he said were of Picasso artworks and which he also wanted authenticated. In April, a third letter had arrived from Le Guennec. He had sent another 30 photographs which he again said were of Picasso artworks and which he also wanted the Picasso Administration to authenticate.

Although Claude Picasso had already on receipt of the first envelope of photographs thought that the works were reproductions because it was unheard of that one individual could possess so many original Picassos, by the receipt of the third batch of photographs, he had become highly suspicious and thought that he was dealing with an art-thief gang and had asked Le Guennec to bring the works to Paris.

It was a wet but warm day when Pierre and Danielle Le Guennec, 71 and 68 respectively, walked into the office of the Picasso Administration close to the chic Vendôme Square where stand the Ritz Hotel and such jewellery stores as De Beers and Cartier.

As Christine Pinault would recall to London’s The Guardian, “The man was wearing an old-fashioned suit and a tie. His wife had made an effort with her hair and make-up, and polished her nails, but you’d have passed them in the street without giving them a second glance. You’ve never have guessed what they had with them.”

Humbly, the grey-haired Pierre Le Guennec was pulling a black wheeled suitcase which the couple had brought the 560 miles from their home in Mouans-Sartoux, in the Province-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region of France, by train to Paris, and then across Paris on the Métro (underground rail network).

From the suitcase the couple took 271 artworks of which six were oils on canvas, 28 lithographs, nine cubist collages, and the rest were watercolors and sketches on sheets of paper or in sketchbooks. One was a sketch -- “Olga accoudée” (“Olga elbowed”) -- of the late Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova who was Picasso’s first wife and mother of his only legitimate child, Paulo. (Paulo, born in 1921, died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1975, in other words just two years after his father’s death. Paulo’s son Pablito committed suicide on the day of his grandfather’s funeral by drinking bleach.)

Another of the artworks was a vividly-colored hand study, and another, a cubist collage of a pipe and a bottle - “Papier colle pipe et bouteille” (“Copy paste pipe and bottle”).

“Monsieur Le Guennec opened the case and took the pieces out. One after the other there they were on the table. We were bowled over to see so many unknown works of such great quality. It was an emotional moment. Monsieur Picasso went quiet. There was an atmosphere of stupefaction,” Christine Pinault would also tell The Guardian.

The originals of some of the photographed works Claude Picasso had never seen. They were not in an inventory of his father’s work which the late art historian and auctioneer Frenchman Maurice Rheims (1910-2003) had compiled after the artist’s death, or they were in the inventory but were noted as "missing" having been lost, as was thought, during successive house moves or when his Paris studio had been flooded once. Or indeed, those "missing" works had been stolen. (It had taken Mr. Rheims three years to compile the inventory which at its completion, according to one report, listed 1,885 paintings, 7,089 sketches, 3,200 ceramics, thousands of engravings, and many tapestries and rugs. The inventory has not been made public so media reports differ on the exact number of artworks Picasso had produced, the number varying between 70,000 and 80,000.)

Claude Picasso was certain that what had come from Le Guennec’s suitcase and were on the table in front of him were not fakes but genuine Picassos because his father had an unique and inimitable system of numbering his works and what he was looking at had been numbered in that way.

But there was a snag.

How did this man named Pierre Le Guennec come into possession of such a treasure? 

A treasure it was indeed because on Tuesday, May 4, 2010 -- four months before that September 2010 day -- Picasso’s “Boy with a pipe”produced in 1905 when Picasso was 24 had sold at auction at New York’s Sotheby’s for $104.2 million, and his “Nude, green leaves and bust” produced in 1932 when Picasso was 51 had sold at auction at New York’s Christie’s for $106.5 million, which at that time set a world record for a work of art sold at auction. (The seller was the estate of the Los Angeles art collector and philanthropist Frances Brody. The buyer bid anonymously by telephone and remains unknown.)

Therefore, the nine collages in Le Guennec’s suitcase alone must be worth approximately $45 million: These had been produced in 1912, and art critics had, at that time, described them as “painted proverbs.”  As for the other works in the suitcase all had been produced between 1900 and 1932 and would also be worth millions.

The Handyman

Pierre Le Guennec
Pierre Le Guennec

But who was Pierre Le Guennec and what had been his connection to Pablo Picasso?

According to what Le Guennec told Claude Picasso he had worked for his father and a friendship had developed between them.

In what capacity had he worked for the artist?

As handyman: An electrician by trade, he had first installed a security system in one of Picasso’s three abodes before he had begun to do odd jobs around the property, and he and “the master” as he called the artist, had thus become friends. His wife had also become friends with Picasso’s wife, Jacqueline Roque Picasso, the two women having got on so well that when his wife was in hospital for the birth of their second son, Jacqueline Roque Picasso had visited her.

And Picasso had gifted him the 271 works?

No, it was Jacqueline Roque Picasso, who had one day, as he was getting ready to return home after a day’s work, handed him a closed box with the words, “Here, it’s for you. Take it home.” He had said, “Thank you, Madame,” and had taken the box home. Not having looked to see what was inside the box he had taken it into his garage and there he had left it and forgotten about it.

In what year was that?

Neither of the two Le Guennecs could remember when exactly it was that Picasso’s wife had given Pierre the box but it must have been in 1972 or 1973, because Picasso was then still alive.

It had therefore been 37 or 38 years previously and the only reason they wanted the works authenticated was because they were getting on and Pierre had had a problem with prostate cancer and he wanted to avoid leaving legal headaches behind for their children.

There was no way that Claude Picasso could verify Pierre Le Guennec’s story with Jacqueline Roque Picasso because she was no longer alive. Having fallen into a deep depression after her husband’s death and drinking heavily, she had committed suicide on Wednesday, October 15, 1986, aged 59, by shooting herself in the head. (In 1961, Jacqueline Roque had married Picasso, having met him when he walked into a pottery shop in the South of France where she worked. Picasso was 72 and she was 27.)

Three hours after the Le Guennecs had arrived at the Picasso Administration office, they left.

Pierre Le Guennec was again pulling the black suitcase behind him, and again it was filled with Picasso’s millions of dollars worth of artworks.

Said Christine Pinault to The Guardian: “Monsieur Picasso told the couple the works were interesting and that he would do some research and consider their case and would contact them. He didn’t want to alert them that he knew what they had. We knew we had to let them leave but it was hard and we were worried. We kept thinking, ‘What if something happens to the works’?”

The couple having left, Claude Picasso called the family’s lawyer, Maître Jean-Jacques Neuer, and on Thursday, September 23, the latter began legal action on behalf of the Picasso heirs against the Le Guennecs for “having received stolen goods.”  (Maître is the honorific for a lawyer in France.)

On Tuesday, October 9, the police arrived at the Le Guennecs’ two-story villa in the village of Mouans-Sartoux, three miles from the medieval town of Mougins where Picasso and his wife had lived in the last years of the artist’s life, and where his wife was alleged to have given Pierre Le Guennec the box.

The Le Guennec villa was neat, the outer walls painted white, the shutters, doors and the door of the garage painted turquoise.

Outside the garage stood the couple’s not-so-new Renault 19 hatchback. It was in that garage where the Picasso treasure had stood quite forgotten for almost 40 years.

The police took Pierre Le Guennec into custody and seized the 271 “stolen” Picasso artworks. Three days later he was released without charge, but he remained under investigation for “having received stolen goods.”

The police kept the artworks. These were handed to l’Office central de lute contre le traffic des biens culturels (National Office Against Traffic in Cultural Goods) and deposited for safe keeping in a vault in the Banque de France in Paris.

Nine months later, in June 2011, both Pierre and Danielle Le Guennec were charged with “having received and concealed stolen goods” but they remained free without having had to post bail.

Each media report put a different price tag on the couple’s Picasso treasure; these fell within a range of $50 million and $100 million.

Their Story

The Le Guennecs told their story, or rather stories, to the police.

It was in 1970 that they had moved from the cooler north-west of France to the sunnier and warmer south.

Pierre Le Guennec, then 31 and an electrician by trade, had placed an advertisement in a local newspaper offering to do electrical work and Jacqueline Roque Picasso had contacted him. She wanted a security system installed at their main residence: a Provencal-style farmhouse named “Notre-Dame-de-Vie” a mile outside the medieval village of Mougins. The two Picassos having been pleased with his work, he had gone to work for them on a permanent basis as general handyman at the farmhouse and the other two Picasso properties -- a villa named “La Californie” above the town of Cannes and a small castle, the “Castle of Vauvenargue”, 89 miles from Mougins.

Le Guennec’s story continued that one day Picasso had suggested they sit down for a cup of tea. This is a story he would repeat later to the daily Nice-based Nice-Matin. “He just wanted to know what I did, how I was, simple things like that. From then on tea with the master became something of a ritual,” he said.

He had also done secretarial work for Jacqueline Roque Picasso.

He also told the police that he and his wife were often invited to have cake and coffee with Picasso and his wife when they talked about “de tout et de rien” - about “all things great and small.”

He further told the police, changing his previous story, that on getting back home after Jacqueline Roque Picasso had given him the box he had seen that in it were sketches, pencil drawings, but not knowing anything about such things he had not thought anything of it. “If Madame had given me a painting, then yes, I would have found it weird,” he said.

Danielle Le Guennec’s story to the police was that her husband had one evening come home with a bin bag filled with things Picasso had given him: Picasso, as Pierre Le Guennec had told his wife, had been cleaning up his studio, chucking into bin bags what he did not want to keep.

Meanwhile, the police learned from Catherine Hutin-Blay that when she was going through her mother’s papers on the latter’s death in 1986 she had found an “acknowledgement of debt” note dated 1983 addressed to her mother and signed by Pierre Le Guennec. The amount of the debt was FF450,000 (today’s value $77,500).

Although Catherine Hutin-Blay had torn up the note thinking that Le Guennec’s debt to her mother did not concern her, Le Guennec did not deny to the police that he had borrowed that amount from Picasso’s widow for whom he had continued to work after her husband’s death.

He had borrowed the money, as he told the police, to pay for a taxi license. As the police would find out he had soon again sold the license and had bought two small apartments, one in Cannes and the other in Cagnes, with the money.

To drive a taxi in France is no banal matter. An applicant who wishes to drive individually and not for a taxi company must apply for a license from the local police as well as for a permit from the town hall of the town or city in which he plans to work, and provide proof of no criminal convictions. He also needs a medical certificate confirming he is in good health and he would have to undergo an annual medical check-up. He furthermore needs a driving licence issued not less than two years previously, and most important, he must have undergone a 300/400-hour training course covering all aspects of transporting individuals on the road. Of course also, he has to have a car which is in perfect running condition. Today - 2015 - to obtain such a license would cost around €250,000 ($282,000) therefore the sum Pierre Le Guennec had borrowed from Jacqueline Roque Picasso must have included the price of the vehicle.)

As for the advertisement for electrical work which Pierre Le Guennec claimed he had put in a local newspaper, the police failed to find such an advertisement.

Disbelief

Shortly after the news of the Le Guennec treasure trove broke in the media, Sir John Richardson, then 86, art historian and friend and biographer of Pablo Picasso wrote in the December 2010 issue of Vanity Fair that the retired electrician’s treasure was part of a “massive group of some 70 portfolios of works on paper which the artist had been obliged to remove from his two Paris homes, an apartment on the Rue la Boétie and a studio on the Rue des Grands Augustins, after the French government had enacted regulations preventing people from having multiple residences.” He continued that Picasso was enraged at the ruling and was forced to have the portfolios “stored or sent down to Cannes.”

He also wrote in the article that he and the British Picasso collector, Douglas Cooper (1911-1984) were with Picasso when the shipment had arrived from Paris. “He asked us to help him go through some of the portfolios. The next two days were spent sitting on the floor of the principal studio rediscovering these treasures. He hadn’t looked at most of the material for 20 or 30 years, Picasso said, and the contents were as much a surprise to him as they were to us. The artist’s excitement was infectious and his comments fascinating.”

He added that as soon as he heard of the Le Guennec affair he realized that the works had to have been part of this horde which had arrived in Cannes more than 50 years earlier.

Claude Picasso spoke to the media of his father’s generosity but that Picasso “always signed and dedicated his gifts even when he knew that the people would sell them because they needed the money. To have given such a large quantity of work … it’s never been known and to be honest it doesn’t stand up.”

Maître Neuer’s opinion of such an extraordinary gift was as damning. Speaking to The Guardian he said:  “Frankly it is absurd, out of this world. If you’d been given that many Picasso works, wouldn’t you have put one or two on the wall? And if you are hard up as this couple appear to be, wouldn’t you have sold at least one in the last 40 years to make ends meet?”

He continued: “Picasso kept copious notes and diaries of his life and yet nowhere is Monsieur Le Guennec mentioned as a friend. And yet he gives him not one, but 271 works of art. Does this sound likely? We have to wait for the police to finish their inquiry, but what can I say: I think not.”

An astonishing development

At the end of November 2010, the police investigation ongoing, a genealogist in the town of Bordeaux, south-west France, contacted Maître Neuer.

The genealogist had been appointed by the French State to find close relatives of a wealthy childless woman who had died without a will.

The woman’s death concerned the Picasso family because the woman’s maiden name was Le Guennec, and Pierre Le Guennec was her cousin. And she was the owner of numerous original Picasso artworks as well as original artworks by other artists like Marc Chagall (1887/1985), Max Ernst (1891/1976), Joan Miró (1893-1983) and Fernard Léger (1881/1955).

In France when someone dies intestate and there are no direct heirs -- a spouse, ex-spouse, children be they legitimate or illegitimate, parents or grandparents -- the State searches for relatives like siblings, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, cousins, even grandparents and in-laws who could inherit from the deceased. Each would receive a percentage of the inheritance based on the closeness of the family connection: A sibling would accordingly receive a larger percentage than a cousin.

Pierre Le Guennec therefore stood to inherit from the deceased woman.

The woman, at first referred to in the French media as “Madame B” was Jacqueline Bresnu, widow of a Maurice Bresnu. The latter had been Picasso’s chauffeur from 1966 to the artist’s death in 1973.  Maurice Bresnu had died in 1991, his widow having been his heir, and she had died in 2009 -- in other words the previous year.

The news out that the Le Guennecs and the Bresnus were close relatives, the Paris auction house Drouot immediately cancelled an auction it was to have held on Thursday, December 9, of the “Madame B”, as they called it, Picasso artworks.

Maurice and Jacqueline Bresnu

In 1966, Maurice Bresnu, a taxi driver, had gone to work as chauffeur for Pablo and Jacqueline Picasso who had five years previously made the “Notre-Dame-de-Vie” farmhouse outside Mougins their main residence. The artist was then 85 years old and Jacqueline was 39. That part of France is hilly and the roads can climb and curve dangerously, so it was normal for an 85-year-old to feel that he should no longer drive.

According to the story the Bresnus had told friends and neighbours, a friendship had quickly developed between the two of them and the two Picassos. What is known is that Picasso had given Bresnu, in his early forties, and sporting a full black beard and described by those who knew him then as “burly,” the nickname Nounours --Teddy Bear -- and from then on a bear had often appeared in a Picasso work. Art experts also thought that they recognized Bresnu on several of Picasso’s works: on some such paintings he is naked and on others he is with a female figure the art experts claim is Jacqueline Roque Picasso. She too is naked.

One of Picasso ‘s favourite outings was when Maurice Bresnu drove him the 140 miles from Mougins to a bull fight in the town of Arles or in one in the town of Nîmes, 157 miles away. On photographs of Picasso of those years Bresnu was often at his side, looking totally at ease in the company of his employer and the wealthy and famous -- movie stars and starlets, producers and best-selling authors -- watching the killing of a bull from the stands. Later, the bull dead, he would again be photographed with his employer and the wealthy and famous sitting on the terrace of one of the town’s café-bars enjoying drinks. He would also be photographed with Picasso, the two sitting drinking coffee at a table in the farmhouse’s two-acre garden, the lush Mediterranean vegetation as background.

Often, Jacqueline Bresnu, also in the employ of the Picassos as a housekeeper and chambermaid, would join the two Picassos for lunch either in the garden or in the large dining-room or kitchen.

In 1973, Picasso having passed away, the Bresnus continued to work for his widow, but in 1976 they decided to retire and bought a large house -- some French media described it as cossu (grand and opulent-looking) -- in the town of Sérignac 400 miles from Mougins.

The Brenus’ wealth did not however surprise their friends and neighbors because they knew that the two had been friends with Pablo Picasso and were still friends with Jacqueline Roque Picasso and that the two Picassos had given the couple numerous Picasso artworks. Two Picasso paintings even hung on the wall of the couple’s living room.

One neighbour, describing the couple as “living like gentry in a large house and driving a luxury car,” told the Paris daily Le Figaro: “He (Bresnu) always said to us: I have so much money that I will not be able to live long enough to blow the lot.”

In 1991 Maurice Bresnu passed away and in 2009 so did Jacqueline.

The “Madame B” artworks

In May 2011, a month before the police charged the Le Guennecs with “having received and concealed stolen goods,” a Paris couple named Bernard and Dominique Lambert contacted the National Office Against Traffic in Cultural Goods.

Bernard Lambert was a retired fruit and vegetable seller from Paris and Dominique a retired cleaner. She was the niece of Jacqueline Bresnu and thus also a relative of the Le Guennecs.

The story they told and which was rapidly picked up by the media was astonishing.

They said that the “Madame B” collection which Drouot was going to sell was stolen: they said that the Bresnus had stolen all the Picasso artworks in their possession, and that the couple had not hidden this fact. The couple, they said, used to speak of having “swiped” the artworks.

The Lamberts said that they had first heard about how the Bresnus were stealing Picasso artworks in the 1980s when they were on vacation with the couple at their new Sérignac house. Picasso was of course by then dead but Jacqueline Roque Picasso was still alive.

“He (Maurice Bresnu) never told me how he had stolen the works, but he always maintained that he never took anything while Picasso was still alive,” Bernard Lambert told the Paris prestigious daily Le Monde.

He continued that the thefts had taken place at the Mougins house when Bresnu called in on the distraught widow.

“Maurice (Bresnu) was completely at home there, so he could help himself at his leisure,” he told Le Monde.

As Bernard Lambert further recounted, Bresnu had taken him up to the attic and had shown him the “swiped” Picassos. “There were just the two of us and he showed me everything he had, sketchbooks, folders and files that contained loads of drawings. I remember the drawings in the spiral-bound sketchbooks. I don’t know how many pieces there were, but at least 100, maybe 200.”

Bernard Lambert also told Le Monde that when on Wednesday, October 15, 1986, Jacqueline Roque Picasso had committed suicide, Maurice Bresnu had telephoned him. He said: “Maurice phoned me straight away. He asked me to find potential buyers for the Picassos that he had.”

Lambert approached an antique dealer at Paris’s Saint-Ouen flea market who put him in touch with an art dealer who accepted the task of selling Bresnu’s Picassos.  The Picassos all bore Picasso’s signature which to a dealer had meant that they were not fakes or reproductions, but originals.

As Lambert would further tell Le Monde he had told the police that Bresnu had forged Picasso’s signature on the artworks. “Whenever he was on the telephone and doodling on a piece of paper next to him, he used to imitate Picasso’s signature. It was one of my uncle’s quirks.”

He would also tell the police that Bresnu generally gave him 10 percent of the selling price and a drawing, for example, sold for about FF40,000 (today about $7,000) but Bresnu was complaining to him that the art dealer was paying him too little.

According to Lambert’s calculation his 10 percent should have come to FF1.6 million (today about $276,000) but he had received only about FF1.3 million (today $207,000). The payments were made in cash and Jacqueline Bresnu left the money in Lambert’s bank in a safety deposit box.  (In the 1980s a million French Francs was a large sum of money: a three-bedroom apartment in Paris would have cost around FF250,000.)

The Bresnus were also selling Picassos without Bernard Lambert’s assistance. In 1989 an art gallery in Geneva, Switzerland, was selling on auction 44 previously unseen signed Picasso drawings, most of them erotic: the seller wished to remain anonymous. That same year London’s Christie’s also auctioned several Picassos, and again the seller had wished to remain anonymous, and in 1991 an Italian art dealer put another batch of Picassos on the market on behalf of an unnamed seller. The Geneva gallery, the Italian art dealer and Christie’s would later tell Claude Picasso that the seller had been Maurice Bresnu. In 1995, three years after Bresnu’s death, his widow continued to sell Picassos which included three sketchbooks which the Italian art dealer was selling on her behalf. The Italian had told Le Parisien that when she had given him the sketchbooks she had told him that she had no further Picasso works to give him.

Jacqueline Bresnu had lied. On her death she still had the 143 artworks which Drouot was going to auction, the proceeds of the auction to have gone to the heirs the state-appointed genealogist would have found.

As was stipulated in the Drouot catalogue, the total value of the 143 artworks which included illustrations for books, objects like bronze plates and scarves, ceramics, prints, drawings and paintings, stood between $390,363 and $542,163 - €347,700/€482,910.

The most valuable item in the catalogue was No. 143 which was Picasso’s "Nu feminine aux regards masculines"  -- ‘Female nude with masculine expression -- created in 1972. It was signed, dated and dedicated as follows: "Picasso 25.10.72 pour nounours." The value the auction house put to it was €60,000/€80,000 - $68,000/$90,000.

Another two valuable pieces were "Paul en costume de toréador" – "Paul in torero costume" - created in 1956 and "Paloma à la poupeé," "Paloma with doll" - also created in 1956. Their value was respectively between $33,500 and $55,800, and $22,340 and $44,700.

The total number of Picasso artworks which had been in the Bresnus' possession has not been established, but in 2012, the Picasso Administration had traced 250 pieces which the couple had already sold anonymously by auction. The Picasso Administration thought that beside those in the Drouot catalogue the couple must still have had another 500 pieces. The fate of those remains unknown.

The question

Picasso no longer alive and his widow’s depression and drinking having made it impossible for her to know what was going on in her house, did both Maurice Bresnu and Pierre Le Guennec help themselves to Picasso’s artworks? Or did Bresnu do the taking and Le Guennec did the receiving? Or did Jacqueline Roque Picasso give Le Guennecs the Picassos, as the couple claimed?

The Le Guennecs standing trial for “having received and concealed stolen goods” showed that the police had not found proof that Pierre Le Guennec himself, or the couple, had stolen the Picasso artworks. According to the law of France who had stolen the Picasso artworks the couple had in their possession was not the issue. The prosecution therefore only had to prove that the Picasso artworks in the couple’s possession had come from a “fraudulent origin” and that the couple had known this.

The trial

On Tuesday, February 10, 2115, Pierre and Danielle Le Guennec walked into Hall F of the courthouse in the town of Grasse, six miles from Mougins. Pierre Le Guennec was casually dressed in jeans and a dark windbreaker: Danielle Le Guennec wore a black coat with a fur collar and cuffs and she was neatly coiffed and made-up.

This was a civil case brought by six plaintiffs, all of them Picassos. They were Claude Picasso and his sister Paloma Picasso (65) the two born in the relationship of Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot; Maya Widmaier-Picasso (80) born in the relationship of Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter; Catherine Hutin-Blay (68), daughter of Jacqueline Hoque Picasso; Marina Picasso (65) daughter of Picasso’s late son Paolo, and her half-brother Bernard (56).

At the opening of the trial, Maître Jean-Jacques Neuer, representing Claude Picasso, accused Le Guennec of being the cover for “an international art laundering scam.” He said, “These stolen works were given to him because he had had ties with Picasso. We have before us an international art laundering affair.”

Le Guennec denied that this had been the case. He insisted that the artworks had been gifts. “Monsieur and Madame called me ‘Little Cousin,’” he told the court. It had been reported in the media that Picasso had not only called Bresnu Nounours, but also "Big Cousin," his cousin Le Guennec, smaller in stature, therefore having been named "Little Cousin."

Questioned by Prosecutor Laurent Robert and by Judge Jean-Christophe Bruyère as to why the Picassos had given them the artworks, he said, “Picasso had total confidence in me. Maybe it was my discretion.”

About the day Jacqueline Roque Picasso had allegedly given him the box of artworks, he said that when he got home, he looked inside the box and found “drawings, sketches, crumpled paper.”

He added that he and his wife had not looked through everything though.

Asked by the judge whether he was not a little curious to know what was in the box, he replied, “No.”

Said the judge, “Someone offers you a gift, and you leave it to rest for 40 years. Notwithstanding the financial value, did you not even attach any sentimental value to it? You didn’t want to hang any of the paintings in your home?”

Le Guennec replied, “I didn’t have in mind that they were works of art, they were essays, torn bits, it didn’t grab me. It’s not as if I saw a painting, it’s not the same, it’s not the same reaction.”

He and his wife had then forgotten about the box in the garage. Forgotten about it until 2009.

He further said that having remembered about the box of Picasso artworks in the garage, he had thought of asking the Picasso Administration to authenticate the works, so he had drawn up lists of the works, one of his brothers-in-law who had once had an art gallery, having helped him to do so.

Maître Neuer dismissed that statement, saying that Le Guennec’s lists revealed a great knowledge of art which Le Guennec and a gallery owner would not have. The lists had therefore been drawn up by a great connoisseur like an art historian. The lawyer cited an example from one of the lists. He said that one small pencil drawing was described as having similarities with a 1915 painting of a harlequin exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art: Le Guennec would not have had such knowledge.

The Le Guennecs’ lawyer, Charles-Etienne Guden, counter-attacked by saying that only a dozen or so of the works which had been in his clients’ possession were works of value. He described the rest as “very mediocre.” They were so mediocre that Picasso had not tried to sell them. He added that it would have been extremely difficult for anyone to steal from Picasso as the artist had an “amazing memory” and also his properties were protected like a fortress.

Before the trial he had told AP that “He (Picasso) gave him (Pierre Le Guennec) the works 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 had added that the Le Guennecs had never tried or needed to sell the works because as Le Guennec had told him, “You don’t sell gifts.”

Maïtre Neuer, also in speaking to the media before the trial, had told reporters:  “They (the Le Guennecs) don’t remember a thing, whether they received this gift in 1970,1971, 1972. If someone gives you 271 Picasso works, you remember that.” Pointing out that what the Le Guennecs had had been created between 1900 and 1932, he said: “You would have to imagine Picasso keeping them for 70 years and all of a sudden wanting to give them away.” He added that Picasso always autographed everything -- whether he had given it away or sold it -- but the Le Guennec’s "gifts" had not been autographed.

While the Le Guennecs continued to insist that the 271 Picasso works had been a gift from Jacqueline Roque Picasso, Prosecutor Laurent Robert knocked their claim down with, “It does not matter that the author of the theft has not been positively identified. Pierre and Danielle Le Guennec knew that the works had been fraudulently acquired.”

As for the possibility that they had acquired the works from Maurice Bresnu, Judge Bruyère emphasized that the Le Guennecs had hidden their family connection with the Bresnus from the police. Pierre Le Guennec’s defense was that he and Maurice Bresnu had not been even friends. They had, he claimed, fallen out in 1975 because Bresnu had “looked down on him.”A witness for the prosecution then told of having witnessed an argument between Pierre Le Guennec and Maurice Bresnu, the latter having accused Le Guennec of having “mucked about” at the Picassos and that they “all risked having problems because of it.” After he had witnessed the argument, added the witness, Jacqueline Bresnu had told him that her husband “was suspecting Le Guennec of helping himself at the Picassos.”

The second day of the trial was devoted to further questioning of the Le Guennecs and projections of the works they had had in their possession.  Judge Bruyère had barred cameras from the courtroom for the day, and indeed no list of the works has been made public.

On Thursday, February 12, the third and last day of the trial, Prosecutor Laurent Robert summed up, saying “We are dealing with a very particular offence, one which has been detrimental to humanity. The amount of works is incompatible with any notion of gift.”

He stressed that the Le Guennecs had harmed the “trust” and “memory” of Picasso, and that he was sure that the works had been stolen.

He asked Judge Bruyère for a five-year suspended prison sentence for the couple. He described such a sentence as “balanced.”

He did though have a kind word for the Le Guennecs. He described them as being “overwhelmed by the events” and added that they had not made any money from their actions. “One can be an honest person in life, and still make a mistake,” he said.

Judge Bruyère’s verdict and sentence, should he find the Le Guennecs guilty, will be delivered on Friday, March 20.

Did Pablo Picasso know that his wife had given 271 of his works to their handyman?

As Pierre Le Guennec had said to journalists before the trial, “Madame gave them to me. And if she gave them to me, he had to be aware of it.”

Art Loss Register

The London-based Art Loss Register (ALR), a computerized database of lost or stolen artworks, antiques and collectables currently (March 2015) lists 300,000 missing objects: this figure increases by about 10,000 each year.

The ALR lists 550 of Picasso’s works as missing.

The most sensational art theft was the 1911 theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s "Mona Lisa." You can read about it here - http://www.crimemagazine.com/stealing-mona-lisa-world%E2%80%99s-greatest-art-heist

Picasso’s ’Notre-Dame-de-Vie’ Farmhouse

In 2008 a Belgian art dealer bought the three-story 35-room house from Catherine Hutin-Blay, the daughter of Jacqueline Roque Picasso. The unnamed art dealer is said to have paid between $13 million and $16 million for the property. After having had renovation work carried out, he put the property back on the market: asking price $220 million.

For that amount the buyer will have 10 bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a guest house and a guard house, two swimming pools, a tennis court and a two-acre garden.

In 2013, the Nice Matin reported that the property which the Belgian art dealer had renamed "Domaine L’Antre du Minotaire" which translates "The Minotaur’s Lair" after the Greek mythological creature which had so often featured in Picasso’s art, had not yet found a buyer.

The fate of the 271 Picasso artworks

The 271 Picasso artworks will never be returned to the Le Guennecs.On Friday, March 20, Pierre and Danielle Le Guennec were found guilty and given a two-year suspended sentence. The judge at the same time ordered the stolen artworks to be handed over to the Picasso Administration, in other words to the Picasso heirs.

Neither the French court nor the Picasso Administration had put a value to the Le Guennecs’ stolen stash, but back in December 2010 when the story of the theft had broken, Vanity Fair had estimated the stash’s value at between $60 million and $80 million.

However, art dealers now say that considering the May 11, 2015 sale by auction at Christie’s New York of the Picasso painting “Les Femmes d’Algier” --  “The Women of Algiers” --  for $179.4 million,  what the Le Guennecs’ had helped themselves to could be many more millions of  dollars valuable than Vanity Fair’s 2010 estimate.

The art dealers also point out that at a previous auction of the “Les Femmes d’Algier” painting in 1997 the American collectors Victor and Sally Ganz had sold it to a Saudi Arabian collector for $31.9 million. This means that from 1997 to 2015 –- less than two decades -- the value of the painting had increased by 82 percent.

A second Picasso painting was sold at the May 11, 2015 Christie's auction: the 1938 portrait of Dora Maar, the artist’s lover from 1936/1944, named “Femme à la Résille” --“Woman with a Snood” -- for $67.5 million.  This painting’s estimated value was $55 million which means it fetched $12 million more.

The amount of $179.4 million was the highest amount ever paid for a painting sold by auction, and $67.5 million was the 12th highest amount ever paid for a Picasso sold by auction.

The sellers as well as the buyers of both paintings preferred not to be identified.

 

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