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This Elderly French Couple Will Have to Return 271 Stolen Picasso Artworks They Kept In Their Garage

A French court sentenced a handyman and his wife a two-year suspended jail sentence as part of an investigation into a box of unknown works by the Spanish master.

by Pierre Longeray
Mar 20 2015, 5:40pm

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

A retired French electrician and his wife were each handed a suspended sentence of two years in jail, and were ordered to return 271 works by Pablo Picasso to the Spanish painter's heirs. 

A court in the southeastern French town of Grasse found Pierre Le Guennec and his wife guilty of handling stolen goods, despite claims by Picasso's former electrician that the works were a gift from the late painter's second wife, Jacqueline Roque.

The court did determine who was responsible for the theft, and one attorney theorized that the couple had been manipulated by a dubious syndicate of art dealers. 

Le Guennec says the works, which include lithographs, sketches and collages created between 1905 and 1932, were stored in a cardboard box in his garage until 2010, when the couple decided to have them expertly valued, in order to sell them.

A 2010 article in Vanity Fair estimated the collected artworks to be worth upward of $60 million.

Picasso's son Claude Ruiz-Picasso — who runs Administration Picasso, which manages Picasso's estate and oversees the authentication of artwork — lodged a complaint against the Le Guennecs in 2010, accusing them of theft and handling stolen goods. 

The Le Guennecs went on trial in February in the picturesque town of Grasse, less than ten miles away from the farmhouse in Mougins where Picasso spent the end of his life with Jacqueline Roque. 

During the trial, various experts and family members discredited the claim that the artworks were a gift, and on Friday the couple was ordered to return the works to Picasso's son Claude, keeper of the family estate.

Speaking in court in February, Prosecutor Laurent Robert appealed for a reasonable sanction for the septuagenarian couple, who he said were "in over their heads" and "had made no money" from the works.

The couple, who faced a maximum five-year suspended prison sentence for the concealment charge, did not face charges of theft, the statute of limitations for artwork theft having long since expired.

The case of the missing artworks
Pierre Le Guennec met the Picassos when he installed burglar alarms at the couple's Mougins farmhouse, which filled up with precious art during the prolific painter's later years. Nicknamed "little cousin" by Pablo and Jacqueline Roque, Le Guennec soon became a family friend and remained the Picassos' go-to electrician until the death of Jacqueline Roque, in 1984.

Le Guennec claims that two years before Picasso's death in 1973 — he can't "remember the exact date" — Jacqueline gave him 271 works by her husband, saying "These are for you." Le Guennec says he stored the works, "drawings, etchings and crumpled paper," in a cardboard box in his garage for 40 years, without so much as a second thought.

In 2010, he contacted Picasso's son, Claude Ruiz-Picasso, to obtain the certificate of authenticity necessary for any sale. That same year, Le Guennec and his wife traveled to Paris with 180 of the 271 works, packed in a small suitcase on wheels.

Claude Ruiz-Picasso was shocked to discover the stash, which included never-before seen collages and uncatalogued sketches, created over a 30-year period. When asked why he had sat on the collection for so long, Le Guennec claimed to have forgotten all about the box until recently, when a cancer diagnosis forced him to put his affairs in order for the sake of his two sons. 

Doubtful over the veracity of Le Guennec's story, Ruiz-Picasso lodged a complaint against the couple, and a month later, police seized the 271 works from the couple's home in Grasse as part of a judicial inquiry.

A story that doesn't stack up

Jean-Jacques Neuer, the attorney representing the Picasso family, believes that Le Guennec may have been manipulated by unscrupulous art dealers, who wanted to get their hands on works that may have originally been stolen by Maurice Bresnu, Picasso's chauffeur for many years.

The court found it suspicious that Le Guennec has misrepresented his relationship to Bresnu. The electrician is the cousin of Jacqueline Bresnu, the wife of chauffeur Maurice Bresnu.

In his lifetime, Bresnu — nicknamed Nounours (Cuddly Bear) by Picasso — sold dozens of artworks, which he claimed the painter had given him.

When Maurice Bresnu died in 1991, his wife Jacqueline still owned close to 100 original Picassos, which she continued to sell to collectors around the world. She died in 2009, leaving behind several sketches and other drawings valued at 500,000 Euros ($540,000).

A red flag for investigators that deviant art dealers might be involved was the meticulous cataloguing of the works in Le Guennec's possession, which, according to Neuer, were intelligently inventoried and accompanied by "scientific explanations." Neuer believes that Le Guennec — a self-professed art philistine, who claims he inventoried the works after reading "books about Picasso" — could not have catalogued the works as accurately without expert help.

Regardless of how and why Le Guennec came into possession of the art, the court found numerous aspects of his story didn't check out. 

For one thing, the works were unsigned and Picasso, who was known as a generous man when it came to distributing art to those around him, always signed the drawings and paintings he gave away.

Speaking at the trial in February, Anne Baldassari, a former curator at the Paris Picasso museum, highlighted the painter's attachment to his work, and quoted Picasso's frequent assertion that, "I keep everything — you are what you keep." 

Picasso experts have also argued that Le Guennec's version that the painter and his wife gave him "a bunch of old papers," without any explanation, "one night in the hallway," seemed unlikely. 

The final incoherence for the court is a 540,000 Franc loan made by Picasso's wife, Jacqueline Roque, to the electrician in 1983, to pay for a taxi license. Why would Roque not have suggested Le Guennec sell one or more of the 271 "gifted" works to pay for the license?

Because they were never a gift, say the painter's heirs.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray