Pensioner charged with theft of £80m Picasso masterworks

A FRENCH pensioner and his wife have been charged with illegally possessing 271 artworks by Pablo Picasso worth up to £80 million and stashing them in their garage for 40 years.

Retired electrician Pierre Le Guennec, 71, has claimed Picasso gave him the vast treasure trove of paintings and sketches as while he was working at the artist's house in southern France.

Le Guennec and wife Danielle were caught when they took a suitcase crammed with canvases to the painter's heirs in Paris last October to have them authenticated.

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They said that on one occasion Picasso's wife Jacquline had handed them a cardboard box crammed with sketches and said simply: "Here, this is for you."

But within days of art experts proving the works were genuine, police swooped on the elderly pair at their home in Mouans Sartoux, near Cannes, and arrested them on suspicion of receiving stolen goods.

They were released without charge while an investigation was launched to establish exactly how the couple had come by the paintings, but eight months later they have now been formally charged.

Mr Le Guennec has continued to insist the artworks were gifts from his former employer in gratitude for his electrical work.

He said last year: "I worked for Monsieur and Madame Picasso from 1970 to 1973. After Monsieur died in 1973, I continued to work for Madame for another three years.

"They both gave me paintings, and on one occasion she gave me a box containing lots of sketches and canvases, perhaps 100 of them.

"Perhaps they were happy with my work as their electrician and wanted to show their kindness. I don't know."

"I didn't really think about what they might be worth. I just put them in a box in the garage and that's where they sat."

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Madam Le Guennecadded: "We never intended to sell them, and we wouldn't be living in a house like this if we had intended to make money from these paintings."

Christine Pinault, spokeswoman for Picasso's son Claude, told of the "astonishment" at the Picasso Foundation offices in Paris when Le Guennec arrived with the haul of artworks in a suitcase.

She said: "He made an appointment to come and see us and arrived on September 9 with an unlocked suitcase full of paintings and sketches. We could hardly believe he had simply got on a train with something so valuable.

"He first claimed it was Picasso himself that had given them to him, but he didn't seem to be describe a single occasion when a painting was handed to him."

Picasso's son Claude and five other relatives of the Spanish-born artist have dismissed Le Guennec's claim that he could have received the paintings as gifts.

Claude Picasso insisted his father would "never" have given such a large quantity of works to anyone. He told French daily newspaper Liberation: "That doesn't stand up. These works were part of his life."

A source said: "One mystery among many in this affair is why Mr Le Guennec kept these artworks hidden for such a long time.

"This concerns a very large number of paintings and could become what would be the greatest number of paintings stolen by one person in history.

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"The works have all been preserved in good condition. They range from notebooks to drawings and completed paintings, including nine cubist paintings."

Pierre and Danielle Le Guennec are due to go on trial at the end of this month.

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