It's art world intrigue at its finest: A "treasure trove" of works by Picasso has emerged, including 271 paintings, drawings, sketches and lithographs, many previously unknown — from the home of a 71-year-old electrician from Côte de Azur, claiming that the works dating from 1900 to 1932 were gifts from "the master" offered as thanks for installing alarm systems in the artist's various homes.
The Guardian reports that the accidental collector is Pierre Le Geunnec, who first contacted the office of Claude Picasso, 63, the late artist's son who represents his heirs and estate, with letters in January, March and April, enclosing grainy photographs of Picasso works he owned. When Le Geunnec requested Claude's certificate of authenticity, the retired electrician was arrested.
He was later released without charge, but police raided Le Guennec's home in Mouans-Sartoux in the Alpes Maritimes in October, taking a total 271 items with them. Citing Picasso's notorious protectiveness of his works and studio, the family has embarked on a suit "Against X," a term for unknown persons for receiving stolen goods. For the moment, the works are held in an interior ministry's vault in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre at France's Central Office for the Fight against Traffic in Cultural Goods.
Among the locked away works are nine cubist collages, a watercolor from Picasso's iconic "blue period," two notebooks containing 97 previously unseen drawings and models for some of his significant works and portraits of his first spouse, the Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova. The works cover the period from which Picasso arrived in France to his emergence as one of the world's most important modern artists. The 271 works are worth an estimated $79.4 million.
"It seems a little fishy to me, that these were given just for being his electrician," says Jay Erdmann of Houston's Vaughan Christopher Gallery, which specializes in the works of such early modernist masters as Picasso. "But maybe i'm being a pessimist. Picasso was known for bartering works, and it looks like the Picasso estate is not wanting to authenticate these."
Hidden masterworks aren't out of the realm of possibility. "Two or three years ago someobody found in their parents' attic three or four canvases that had been given to their parents by Jackson Pollock, and I don't know if he was even famous when he did it," Erdmann says. "That was believable, but this is a lot more artwork. I think they're fake."
Le Geunnec maintains that the gifts were received in the three years leading up to Picasso's death in 1973 in return for installing security systems in the artist's homes in La Californie in Cannes, Chateau de Vauvenargues and mill at Notre Dame de Vie in Mougins, where he died. Yet he has changed his story, initially arguing they all came directly from Picasso, but then suggesting they were a bequest from Picasso's second wife, Jaqueline Roque, who committed suicide in 1986.
Claude Picasso tells French newspaper Libération:
When you look at my father's works he systematically dated everything. He also wanted to document what he knew would be the work of the century. He kept everything: letters, métro tickets, theatre and bullfight tickets. Even the string used to tie the many letters brought to him every day . . . he would say it could be recycled in a painting. He would never let go of so many pieces of his oeuvre in one go."
He adds, as reprinted in The Guardian, "To have given so much . . . it doesn't make sense, to be honest. It's true Pablo Picasso was quite generous, but he always dated, signed and dedicated his gifts, especially as he knew some would sell them to cover their needs."
No matter the court's eventual decision, the finding is a boon for art historians and lovers of Picasso's work. Will we ever be seeing the hundreds of newly discovered Picassos in Houston?
"No," Erdmann firmly states. "We only buy things from reputible dealers. There are already enough fakes on the market. Being a bad econcomy, there's somebody coming in here once a week trying to sell something, but there's no way for us to be sure it's authentic and legitimate.
"I don't know that fake Picassos are something we run across a lot. Fake Dalí, for sure. But Picasso has so much stuff out there. Somebody could probably catch them doing a fake print, but if it's a sketch, there's only one, so you don't have anything to compare it to. There would have to be some ferensic testing to see if the paper is the right age or see if the signature matches up."
Of course, that's not going to stop other dealers from feasting on the find. "Whether they're real or not, they could just take them to Sotheby's or Christie's because they specify that it's 'buyer beware'," says Erdmann, adding, "But I bet you could go in one or two years to Paris, New York, Barcelona or Madrid and place a bid. There's money to be made."