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June 22, 2011

The Electrician, 271 Picasso Artworks and the Picasso Foundation: Gift or Theft?

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-chief

Under the headline "La succession Picasso sous tension", Veteran journalist Vincent Noce reported in  Libération that 271 works by Pablo Picasso were 'discovered' when a retired electrician and his wife asked Claude Picasso, the administrator of the Picasso Foundation, for certificates of authenticity for the artwork in their possession.

Noce reports that Claude Picasso, the artist's son by his mistress Françoise Gilot, received a letter on January 14, 2010, from Pierre Le Guennec requesting certificates of authenticity for 26 previously unpublished photographs of works by Picasso. Le Guennec sent another 39 photographs of artworks by Picasso in March and another 30 in April. Noce reports that none of these images matched any previously known works by Pablo Picasso and that Claude Picasso said he could not issue any certificates of authenticity based upon images of the artworks.

So, on September 9, a couple in their 70s from the Côte d'Azur brought a suitcase to the offices of the Picasso Administration on rue Volney in Paris' 2nd arrondissement (just a couple of streets north of the Ritz at the Place Vendôme). For three hours, Noce reports, Claude scrutinized contents of the luggage. The works were allegedly from the period of 1900 to 1932, the years after the artist arrived from Barcelona and had his celebrated first great retrospectives. The artworks had not been included in the inventory of the Picasso estate: nine "cubist collages" worth 40 million euros alone, "these "proverbs in painting" of which the founder of Dada and essayist Tristan Tzara talked about, made in 1912, very fragile, and of which were believed to have been destroyed when Picasso's studio in Montrouge flooded. Also there was a watercolor from Picasso's Blue Period, gouaches, some studies for oil paintings, that we can report to his essays of summer 1920 in his own handwriting, 30 lithographies he had done that year, and more than 200 drawings of his first wife Olga, the arabesques of 15 for the Study of the Three Graces from 1923; a dogfight, a crucifixion, satyrs, and rare landscapes. The fragile cubist collages from 1912, described as "painted proverbs", were thought to have been lost when Picasso's studio in Montrouge was flooded.

Noce asks if these works could be brilliantly executed fakes but reports that those experts who saw the works claim that it would be impossible to reach such a degree of control in so many different techniques. In addition, some of the works are numbered. In 1935, Picasso, in considering a divorce from Olga, had asked his art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, to inventory his work. The boxes remained in the apartment on the Rue La Boetie that Rosenberg had found near his gallery for Pablo and Olga until they were moved to the villa that Picasso bought in Cannes in 1955 where they remained until his death in 1973. Pierre Le Guennec worked as an electrician for Picasso during the last three years of his life, including installing alarm systems.

Pablo Picasso's six heirs filed a complaint on September 23, 2010, against Le Guennec and his wife for concealment, or basically holding stolen property. On October 5, L'office central de lutte contre le trafic des biens culturels (OCBC) [in English it's known as the Central Office for Fighting Against Trafficking in Cultural Property], led by Colonel Stéphane Gauffeny, went to the home of Le Guennec in Mouans-Sartoux (Alpes-Maritimes) and seized the collection of Picasso artworks and put them in the vault of the OCBC in Nanterre.

Noce reports that the Picasso family does not believe that Picasso or his wife Jacqueline would have given the artworks to the electrician. Picasso is said to have repurchased some of his own artwork, since as the first painting he had done of a bullfighter when he was eight years old.

Noce writes that the Picasso family is prepared to engage in a great legal battle to protect the legacy of Pablo Picasso. The question Noce asks is why was this treasure kept in solitary confinement for four decades. Noce wonders if keeping these artworks quiet was a way to avoid criminal prosecution (a limit of three years) or civil liability (a limit of 30 years).

Le Guennec was taken into custody by the police, then released, and sometime soon will have to go to court to explain how he came into possession of these artworks.

After the recent coverage of this story in ARTINFO, "Picasso's Electrician Indicted for Harboring Allegedly Stolen Cache of the Master's Art," I contacted a family friend, a retired French bank employee living in Nice, and asked him about his thoughts on the case.  I found them interesting, and with his permission, I publish them now:
First reaction: for what possible reason would anyone keep stolen property for 40 years without trying to sell it? Theft is for gain. But not always monetary gain. There are those who steal to increase a collection (a story about 10 years back of a man who had been robbing a museum for years to increase his collection) but that doesn't appear to be the case here. 
Secondly, the presumption of innocence in France is a legal obligation, and it is highly unlikely that a court would leak to the press a presumption of guilt. So the article covering the event is slanted. I wonder why? 
Thirdly, if nobody knew these works existed, how can you prove they were stolen? And by whom? The electrician? Obviously not for gain, or he would probably have tried to sell them quietly one at a time. 
What is important, and what will never be known, is what he artist himself thought of the works. 
Example. I write music. From time to time I dig up a piece written years ago - and find it is sonic rubbish. So I rewrite it or throw it away. If by chance I had left the score of one of those pieces with someone, would that person be accused of theft 40 years after my death? (If by chance I have left an unfinished concerto at your place, either blow your nose with it, or stick it in the loo in case you run out of paper.) But suppose I became famous. Would the art world accept my opinion of the said rubbish, or would it become priceless just because it was composed by me? Imagine that an unpublished and unknown score by Mozart were discovered. Musicians would quzuz up to play it, regardless of its musical value. (And no, not everything that Wolfie wrote was a work of genius). What gives value to a work is the signature. If you visit the Picasso museum at Antibes you will find a room of decorated plates. And even if you proved that one of the plates was the work of 7 year old Georges Dupont, the art world would ignore you or disbelieve you. 
It seems that not all the works bore the signature of the artist. 
Suppose the electrician is telling the truth, and Picasso, or more likely his late wife gave away the works, considering them as sub standard. Or even possibly as thanks for an unsubmitted invoice. In that case, is someone currently trying to appropriate the works without paying the owner a fair market price? 
It is easy to pick holes in someone's evidence about a long past event. Can anyone clearly and concisely describe a 40 year old event in his or her life? Put yourselves in the place of this electrician and his wife being grilled by the police. Their word is being doubted. Nobody has informed us of what the electrician and his wife thought of the artistic value of the works. Suppose they considered them merely as keepsakes or mementos of a kind old employer. And if they really had stolen the works would they be stupid enough to ask the potential owners what they were worth? The couple state that in view of their age, they are just trying to put their estate in order for the benefit of their children. 
There just isn't enough information in this affair to come to any conclusion. So the only thing that is talking is money. And if it talks loud enough, sometimes it silences justice.