Trial over Picasso’s ‘gift’ to handyman and the murky world of art crime

Picasso: most prolific and most stolen artist. Anthony Devlin/PA Archive

The case of Pablo Picasso’s former electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife, Danielle, came to a close on February 12. The pair are accused of handling stolen goods – 271 of Picasso’s works. The French prosecutor seeks a symbolic five-year suspended sentence for the couple. The judge’s verdict and sentence (if found guilty) will be delivered on March 20.

Pierre Le Guennec was Picasso’s handyman at his house in Mougin in the south of France. He claims Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline, gave him a box of the 271 works (among the pieces were lithographs, drawings, sketches) as a gift. For 40 years, the works of art apparently remained in their garage and the couple didn’t look through them properly until 2009. They only came to light in 2010 when Pierre Le Guennec asked the Picasso Administration to authenticate them.

The charge of handling stolen goods (rather than theft) meant that no proof about who actually committed the alleged theft was introduced. But the lawyer for the Picasso Administration, who brought the case to court, added an extra twist to the trial by accusing the couple of being involved in international artwork laundering and alleging that the art was passed to them on account of their past with Picasso.

Pablo Picasso and scene painters in 1917.

Art crime scene

This case shines another bright light on the fascinating, often violent world of art crime which internationally is often misrepresented by the media and not treated seriously enough by law enforcement agencies. In addition, there are many shades of grey that colour the interface between licit and illicit activities in the art world.

The unregulated art world itself can be strongly accused of not doing enough to prevent art crime. The artist Banksy summed up the challenge when speaking to the Sunday Times in February 2010:

I’ve come into contact with a lot more villains since I moved from vandalism into selling paintings. The art world is full of shady people peddling bright colours.

Driven by the belief that work would keep him alive, Picasso was a famously prolific artist. Owing to his huge output and his art’s value in heritage, artistic and economic terms, it is not a surprise that, according to the Art Loss Register, he is the artist with the most stolen work. To illustrate the scale, before this current case, more than 1,000 of his pieces were known to have been stolen.

There is a long and well-documented history of insider art thefts – the most famous of which is probably the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre by an employee in 1911. Another significant crime, highlighted in a security report in 1954, occurred at London’s V&A Museum, where an attendant called John Nevin stole an incredible 2,544 items over 20 years.

The accused. Patrice Lapoirie/EPA

Suspicions

The Le Guennec couple’s story is fascinating and confusing for a number of reasons. Despite the work being done by one of the most influential and famous artists in history, the couple claim never to have looked at the art properly and decided to keep it closed up in their garage for 40 years.

They apparently also had different stories. In contrast to Pierre’s claim that they were a gift in a box, Danielle has allegedly stated that Pierre was given the works in a bin bag after Picasso had been cleaning up his studio.

According to the artist’s biographer, John Richardson, Picasso never gave away work from his early periods, nor did he give anything away without signing the piece. Apparently, only one of the couple’s items is signed.

Although the Picasso Administration lawyer’s claim of international artwork laundering may seem far-fetched in this case, the art world’s lack of regulation coupled with the lack of law enforcement involvement in many countries makes an array of art crimes attractive for criminal gangs – so the claim should not be simply dismissed. The couple could have been viewed as easy targets by criminals.

The verdict in March could have ramifications much further afield than the south of France. As Degas once said: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”. Art theft is often viewed by potential criminals as having a low risk of punishment, something not helped by different media frequently misrepresenting the crime as entertainment.

So the prosecutor’s call for only a “symbolic” sentence could continue to make others, whether they be potential criminals, the media or the public, see art theft as entertainment rather than as a serious crime worthy of more attention.

The criminologist Simon Mackenzie has highlighted how the effects of criminal law are negligible for art crimes, especially concerning the problem of illicit antiquities. This case, whatever the outcome, could reinforce his argument.