Several months ago worldwide news announced a treasure trove of Picasso's work was discovered in a garage in the south of France. 271 paintings and drawings never seen before. Just as quickly as the story developed the news changed. "Discovered' wasn't the case, a 71 year old electrician who'd worked for Picasso and installed burlgar systems at some of his homes had kept them in his garage, his 'gift's' from Picasso. Fakes you'd think but the problem was they appeared original.
Claude Picasso knows an original Picasso masterpiece when he sees one. As the only surviving son and the self-anointed defender of Pablo Picasso's name and legacy, he'd spent almost four decades waging war on the forgeries and fakes attributed to his father.
So when the retired electrician, Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle arrived at Claude's Paris office claiming to have works by "the master", he was ready to deliver a polite but firm brush-off.
The story of this treasure trove of previously unseen works by Picasso began in January this year (months before Le Guennec went public or charges were brought against him). A letter arrived at the Picasso Administration, which represents the artist's heirs, containing 26 photographs purporting to be of works by Pablo Picasso and a request that they be authenticated. In March a second envelope arrived with another 39 photographs, followed by 30 more pictures in April. Claude, who heads the Picasso foundation, found no references to anything matching the photographs in the inventory of his father's work or the inventory compiled after his death. He wrote back saying he couldn't issue certificates of authenticity for what were clearly reproductions. The couple replied, more insistent, and were invited to bring the works to Paris to meet Claude.
So one day in September, Le Guennec and his wife, both in their 70s, stepped into his offices in the Opéra district of Paris. Nothing marked them out from the ordinary. "The man was wearing an old-fashioned suit and a tie," said Christine Pinault, Claude Picasso's personal assistant. Le Guennec, 71, opened the black, wheeled suitcase he had trundled across the parquet floor and pulled out drawings, paintings, sketches and lithographs and placed them on a table. As he produced sketchbooks and fragile, but apparently undamaged, papers from the case, Picasso and Pinault – who with the Le Guennecs were the only people present in the room – stared. This old couple had travelled by TGV from their home in the south of France and across Paris by public transport carrying tens of millions of euro's' worth of original Picasso work, much of which had not been known to exist and which had been hidden for nearly 40 years.
40 years? Questions were raised in Claude's mind.
Among the collection, dating from 1900 to 1932, was a painting from Picasso's celebrated blue period, along with nine cubist collages thought to have been lost.
Claude was immediately suspicious. The unique numbering system Picasso used and found on the artwork proved they were original, but the lack of dating or dedication and the sheer number of pieces threw doubt on Le Guennec's story that he had been given the works as a gift. "Pablo Picasso was generous," said Claude. "But he always signed and dedicated his gifts even when he knew that 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."
"Claude 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," Pinault said. "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?'"
Claude Picasso called Jean-Jacques Neuer, the Picasso family lawyer, who contacted the police. On 5 October, investigators swooped on the couple's modest family home in southern France and seized a treasure trove of 271 original Picasso works worth an estimated €60 million. In a power move, Neuer began legal action against "unnamed persons" for receiving stolen goods, a French legal move allowing police and magistrates to investigate possible suspects. He wanted Le Guennec and the art investigated.
Le Guennec, was taken into custody and later released. He told police that Picasso and his second wife, Jacqueline, had given him the works of art after he'd installed burglar alarms in the their homes in Cannes, Vauvenargues and the mill at Notre Dame de Vie in Mougins, Picasso's last home.
Picasso died there in 1973 while he and Jacqueline were entertaining friends. "Drink to me, drink to my health. You know I can't drink any more," were his reported last words. He left four children: Paulo, who was the only legitimate child, born to his first wife, a Russian ballerina, Maya, born to his mistress, and Claude and Paloma, born to his later mistress Françoise Gilot.
While Claude spends much of his life being a gatekeeper to his father's work, controlling copyrights and use of the family name, his zeal for protecting Picasso stems from the battle he had to be recognised as Picasso's legitimate heir. In 1961 Picasso married Jacqueline, reportedly to spite Claude's mother, who had hoped to marry the artist and have Claude and Paloma recognised.
Meanwhile, Le Guennec the electrician is sticking to his story. "One day Picasso suggested I have tea with him," he told Nice-Matin newspaper. "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. One evening, when I was ready to leave their home, Madame Jacqueline called me. She gave me a box of drawings and said, 'It's for you'. I was embarrassed, but when people accuse me of theft they forget that to leave Picasso's house every day I had to pass his secretary's office and at the entrance of the property there were always two guards."
Claude's Paris lawyer is sceptical. "Frankly if you'd been given that many Picasso works, wouldn't you have put one or two on the wall?" Good question. It seems the couple didn't display any of their 'gift's' and kept them all in the garage for 40 years.
The lawyer wonders if Le Guennec and his wife were as hard up as they appeared to be, why wouldn't they have sold at least one art work in the last 40 years to make ends meet.