French couple found guilty of theft as unparalleled number of Pablo Picasso works found in their possession.

Aix-en-Provence has served as the location of an important trial, one which has gripped the art world for over two years. Pierre Le Guennec, now 77 years old, was master painter Pablo Picasso’s electrician for over forty years.

A trial was held at Aix-on-Provence’s Court of Appeal, where the court heard that Mr Le Guennec had deliberately been hiding huge volumes of the artist’s works during his visits to his home throughout this period.

Having successfully hidden the works, Le Guennec subsequently removed them from the premises after Picasso’s death, with the intent of concealing them from his heirs and the inevitable inventory of his final body of work.

On the conclusion of the case and in his final judgement of 16 December 2016, the judge found Pierre Le Guennec’s wife, Danielle, also guilty. Danielle ‘received the same penalty’ as her husband and their two year suspended sentence was upheld, the Art Newspaper recalls.

So what did Le Guennec steal? The answer is an enormous volume of art – both in number and monetary value.

271 works were stolen and include unknown important collaged pieces from his Cubist era, paintings, drawings and a number of sketch books, all originals and all extraordinarily rare.

Experts reviewing the collection, confirming attribution and provenance, have confirmed that none of the pieces found were either signed or catalogued.

In essence, a large new body of work has been discovered and these stolen artworks could have gone undetected as they had been hidden from the Picasso heirs for over 4 decades.

The Art Newspaper, in an article dating from 16 December 2016, confirmed that the losses are in the region of ‘€70m to €80m’.

The works, ‘dated from between 1900 to 1930… [and] include portraits of family and friends, such as his first wife Olga, Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob, two sketchbooks as well as extremely rare and precious Cubist collages.’

Both Danielle and Pierre Le Guennac had provided a number of conflicting stories as to how they came to posses such an enormous body of art. It was claimed at one point that they had been given the works by Picasso himself, then it was claimed that Picasso’s wife Jacqueline had given them the artworks in the presence of Picasso and then it was later asserted that Jacqueline had given to Le Guennac the artworks as a reward for having asked him to conceal 16 or 17 rubbish bags filled with artworks, to avoid them being included in Picasso’s inventory of works for succession reasons.

Ultimately, the Art Newspaper reports, ‘In the final verdict, the judge described the Le Guennecs’ story as an “implausible and whimsical tale”,’ with no real evidence of how they came to own over 250 masterpieces of 20th century art.

Picasso is widely regarded to be one of the most successful and revered artists ever to have lived. This revelation has shaken the art world and serves as a warning to anyone managing the estates of the world’s best and most celebrated artists.

Theft from an artists’ estate is not an unusual phenomenon, particularly where an artist has been prolific. For this reason, professional management, inventories and systems, while a large undertaking, are necessary where an artist has produced valuable work and a legacy for their descendants.

According to the Art Newspaper article, what emerged from the case is that the Le Guennecs were closely connected with the late chauffeur of Picasso, a man called Maurice Bresnu. Through the criminal investigation it emerged that Bresnu had stolen around 500-600 drawings by Picasso and had sold most of them.

The risks of acquiring stolen artworks are very real: anyone who had purchased a work from Le Guennac within the last six years would probably, under English law at least, have to return it to Picasso’s estate with the only hope of compensation being from Le Guennac himself, who would be unlikely to have the funds to satisfy any claim. Most people think that it will not happen to them; however, at the ADDG we are aware of countless examples of this sort of activity and hope that our resource will raise awareness of this issue and how to avoid it.

At the ADDG, we have specialist service providers who can assist with the recovery of stolen artworks and service providers who can assist with all the necessary due diligence checks before any art purchase is made.

Detailed provenance research and title checks on the artworks and background checks on the seller should help mitigate against the potential risks of acquiring stolen artworks. The risks attached to acquiring stolen artwork are that one may not obtain good legal title or rights to own that artwork and could become embroiled in a legal dispute over ownership and criminal investigation; all of which are potentially damaging financially and potentially harmful to one’s reputation.

If you have enquiries or concerns about these issues, please do not hesitate to contact us at enquiries@artduediligencegroup.com or on 07460 352 939.

Jessica Franses