Saturday, December 4, 2010

Legal Fight Looms Over Staggering Picasso Find

NICE, France (Nov. 29) -- A retired French electrician living on the Riviera has stunned the art world and left Picasso's heirs in "a state of shock" after coming forward with 271 undocumented works of Picasso that the painter's estate believes are authentic.

Pierre Le Guennec, 71, who lives with his wife, Danielle, in the little town of Mouans-Sartoux in the hills outside Nice, is at the center of a looming legal battle over how he obtained the artwork, said to be worth a minimum of $80 million, and whether he stole it.

Le Guennec, who worked for Picasso for a few years before his death and claims the painter gave him the artwork as a gift, was briefly taken into police custody not long after coming forward with the paintings in September.

The artwork, apparently stored in Le Guennec's house and garage for more than 40 years, has since been confiscated by France's Central Office for the Fight Against Traffic in Cultural Goods. The works date from 1900 to 1932 and include lithographs, portraits, watercolors, notebooks and sketches, as well as nine Cubist collages.

A police investigation into how the couple got the artwork is under way. The story was first reported today by the French newspaper Liberation.

"We were absolutely flabbergasted," the Picasso estate's administration lawyer Jean-Jacques Neuer told AOL News today about the moments after Le Guennec met with Claude Picasso, the painter's surviving son, in Paris and showed him some of the works that Picasso and a staffer quickly judged to be authentic.

"I got a call from Claude a few minutes later," Neuer said. "He was in a state of shock. This never happens. This is something so amazing and incredible that there almost aren't words for it."

Le Guennec, who installed security systems at several of Picasso's properties on the Riviera during the three years before the artist died in 1973, told AOL News today that Picasso and his last wife, Jacqueline, who died in 1986, had given him the artwork and that it had been stored at their home ever since.

"Picasso was a friend, yes, but it's not easy to explain why he gave me the artwork," said Le Guennec, who laughed often during the telephone interview but was sometimes evasive in his answers.

Neither he nor his wife, who also spoke to AOL News and also laughed several times during the conversation, seemed concerned that they were rapidly becoming the subject of an international story.

"I have a little idea why Picasso gave us this gift, but I'm not sure," Le Guennec said. "For me it was just a gift. He was a marvelous man. I didn't know if it was worth one franc or a hundred francs at the time."

But Neuer and Claude Picasso find Le Guennec's tale very hard to believe.

"It is absolutely very unlikely, absurd even, that Picasso would have given this much artwork to someone, even someone that was a close friend," Neuer said. "It's completely uncharacteristic of him, and this is museum-quality work."

The bizarre story first began to unfold on Jan. 14 when a letter from Le Guennec about wanting to authenticate some of Picasso's artwork in his possession arrived at the offices of the Picasso estate in Paris, Neuer said.

"We get letters like that all the time from people who want to find out if they have an authentic Picasso," said Neuer. "It almost never happens. We were very skeptical. We thought it was a hoax."

Le Guennec continued to send more letters to the estate, some of which included bad black and white photocopies of some of the artwork in his possession, Neuer said.

But finally, Claude Picasso agreed to meet with Le Guennec and his wife on Sept. 9 in Paris.

Le Guennec said today that he and his wife packed up much of the artwork in "sacks" and brought in on the train from Nice to Paris.

Claude Picasso brought the estate's authenticator to the meeting with the Le Guennecs, Neuer said, and it didn't take long for them both to believe the artwork was truly Picasso's. Neuer said he received a call from a "shocked" Picasso moments after the meeting.

Fortunately, Neuer added, the artwork was in "excellent condition" despite being packed away at the Le Guennec home. Neuer said the Le Guennecs indicated at the time that they planned to leave the artwork to their children and wanted it certified as authentic.

Neuer filed a complaint on behalf of the Picasso estate on Sept. 23 and alerted the authorities, who raided the Le Guennec home a week later and brought Le Guennec in for a few hours of questioning.

Claude Picasso told Liberation that when his father gave someone a piece of his art as a gift, he always dedicated, dated and signed it, because he knew it could be sold one day.

"To give away such a large quantity, that's unheard of. It doesn't hold up," he said. "This was part of his life."

Asked by AOL News about the doubts people have that Picasso actually gave him the artwork, Le Guennec laughed again but didn't answer. When asked if he was concerned that people might wonder if he stole it, Le Guennec said no.

"People can think whatever they want to think," he said. "It doesn't bother me."

by Dana Kennedy AOL News December 1, 2010

Legal Fight Looms Over Staggering Picasso Find

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