Several years ago, five suitcases filled with alleged Frida Kahlo ar tworks and memorabilia turned up in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Widely disputed by Kahlo scholars, the “treasure” might well be fool’s gold. Recently, another suitcase full of controversial masterpieces sur faced, this time in France, the artist being Picasso, and the works very likely authentic. Now at the center of an ongoing investigation and litigation mounted by Picasso’s heirs, the extraordinar y cache of 271 hither to unseen Picassos—paintings, drawings and collages, most produced between 1900 and 1932—are valued by exper ts at over $80 million.
Last September, after corresponding with the Picasso estate, Pierre Le Guennec, a retired electrician, and his wife, both in their 70s, traveled to Paris from their home in southern France, carrying a suitcase with 158 Picassos. They set up a meeting with Claude Ruiz-Picasso, the artist’s son and the estate’s administrator, for the purposes of authenticating the “sample” works and to discuss selling them. Among the pieces were a Blue Period watercolor; a 1920s series of paintings on canvas of a hand; a portrait of Picasso’s first wife, Olga Khokhlova; and a group of nine Cubist collages from 1912. At first, Ruiz-Picasso and other estate representatives questioned the pieces’ authenticity. However, while none of the works are signed or dated, some bear numbers from a complex cataloguing system Picasso used. Of these, some were believed to have been destroyed in a flood in one of his homes, while others were presumed lost during one of Picasso’s many studio moves.
Le Guennec claims that the works were gif ts from Picasso and his wife, Jacqueline, over a three-year period just before the ar tist’s death in 1973. The estate found the stor y unlikely, since Picasso always signed and inscribed gif ts. Fur ther suspicions arose when Le Guennec revealed that at the time, he had been hired to install burglar alarm systems in three of Picasso’s Côte d’Azur homes. Declaring that the collection had been stolen, the estate filed suit several weeks af ter Le Guennec’s visit. Police raided the former electrician’s home and confiscated a total of 271 Picassos. Le Guennec was later taken into custody by police but was released, and has not been charged with a crime. If the works were stolen, the thef t would have taken place long before the three-year statute of limitations for repor ting such crimes in France. In a recent NPR interview, Vincent Noce, an art critic for the French newspaper Libération, which broke the story, pointed out that “the fact is [in France] you cannot sue someone for stealing a work of ar t, even of this impor tance, so late. That’s one big legal problem and this is probably why the family has waited more than 40 years to show this treasure.” The works remain in police hands.