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Electrician brings to light Picasso ‘treasure trove’

It’s an art-quake in the art world: Some 271 previously unknown works by Pablo Picasso, perhaps the premier painter of the 20th century, have come to light after being stored 40 years in the Riviera garage of an electrician who worked at the artist’s villas in the early 1970s.

The magnitude of the trove for art history was revealed by the Paris newspaper Liberation, which broke the story today. The canvases date from 1900 to 1932, the artist’s earliest and most fertile period. They include portraits of Picasso’s first wife, Olga, a watercolor from Picasso’s famed “blue” period, nine inherently important Cubist collages worth tens of millions, as well as lithographs, drawings, and various studies.

The curator of the National Picasso Museum in Paris, Anne Baldassari, today described the find as “unprecedented.”

The monetary value of the Picassos may be upward of $100 million, though art analysts says the historical worth transcends market value. A 1932 Picasso, “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” sold at Christie’s in May for a record $106 million. Christie’s officials described the new trove as “extremely exciting” but said they are unlikely to be sold anytime soon.

The electrician who sparked a controversy
At the heart of the story is one Pierre Le Guennec, who installed alarm systems at Picasso’s notoriously unprotected villas in the south of France, and claims the artist bestowed the works on him as a gift. After corresponding with the artist’s son, Claude Picasso, for months, he showed up Sept. 9 at the Paris office of the Picasso estate to meet Mr. Picasso and verify the authenticity of the works. The son and experts in attendance agreed they were.

But the family disputes the works were gifts. Weeks later, police raided Mr. Le Guennec’s home, seizing the 271-piece trove. They have since released him but the paintings remain secured at the Central Office for the Fight Against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property (OCBC) on the outskirts of Paris.

Unexplained is why the electrician did not come forth earlier if the works were a genuine gift.

In an interview with Liberation, Claude Picasso describes recent months as an extremely “emotional” period, and gave detailed reasons why the family disbelieves the artist would have parted so casually with a large cache and never tell anyone.

“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,” says Mr. Picasso. “He kept everything: letters, métro tickets, theater and corrida tickets. Even the string used to tie the many letters brought to him every day … he would say they could be useful – recycled as we would say today – in a painting. He would never have let go of so many pieces of his oeuvre in one go.”

Why Picasso’s earlier works are more valuable
Some of Picasso’s early Cubist paintings – regarded as a visual chronicle of the early years of modernity, as the artist “liberated” the canvas from two-dimensional painting and explored inner contradictions in the modern mind and soul – were thought to be lost or destroyed.

Picasso, a volcano of an artist, produced an estimated 20,000 works in his lifetime. The quality of later works and drawings are more uneven and arguable less “revolutionary,” making work from earlier decades when he was unknown and poor, of greater artistic and monetary value.

The trove comes as American readers discover new notes and writings by another turn-of-the-century artistic giant, Mark Twain, published by the University of California Press in a 700-page “autobiography.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/30/2010 - 01:29 pm.

    Surely if Mr. Picasso documented everything so carefully, he would have noted the production of these works and his subsequent giving of them to his electrician friend.

    It’s difficult to believe that this many works could have gone missing with their absence going unnoticed.

    If their production is not documented but neither is his giving them to his electrician friend, it’s hard to see how the family has a claim one way or another unless Picasso routinely made meticulous notes regarding every piece of work he gave away and these works are missing from those documented gifts.

    Did he actually pay for the installation of the alarms systems in his villas or were these works, perhaps, given in lieu of payment?

    There would seem to be too many question and not enough answers yet.

    But the more important issue for the art world, I suspect, is question of when and where will these pieces be displayed?

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