Electrician and odd job man Pierre Le Guennec, 75, and his wife, Danielle, are being tried in the French town of Grasse for allegedly stealing about US$75 million of artworks by Pablo Picasso.
When the legendary Spanish artist’s second wife, Jacqueline, handed him a bundle of scrapbooks and sheets of paper, he stowed it away without a second thought, The Telegraph quoted Le Guennec as saying on Tuesday.
“In bulk, the drafts and torn scraps didn’t really draw my attention,” he said, saying they were gifts.
Six of Picasso’s descendants accuse the couple of hiding the 271 sketches and paintings in a box in the garage of their Riviera home for 37 years, despite knowing they were “fraudulently” obtained.
Le Guennec says he was given the collection when he carried out odd jobs for the Picassos more than 40 years ago at their Côte d’Azur home.
Picasso died in 1973, and his wife committed suicide in 1986.
“Picasso was at the height of his powers and you weren’t even bothered enough to look inside that famous cardboard box?” asked Jean-Christophe Bruyère, presiding over the Grasse court.
“Someone offers you a gift, and you leave it to rest for 40 years. Notwithstanding the financial value, did you not even attach any sentimental value to it?”
Le Guennec, described in the French press as “confused”, shrugged his shoulders.
“I wanted to be discreet,” he replied.
“Picasso had absolute trust in me.”
Le Guennec said the painter called him “my little cousin”.
The pieces, dating from 1900 to 1932, include portraits of Picasso’s first wife, Olga; nine Cubist collages, a watercolour from his blue period; studies of his hand on canvas; gouaches; about 30 lithographs and 200 drawings.
In 2010, Le Guennec and his wife took 175 pieces in a suitcase to the Picasso Administration headquarters in Paris and showed them to Claude Picasso – the artist’s son, who administers his estate – and asked to have the works authenticated.
Art experts concluded that not even the greatest counterfeiter could have copied such a wealth of different styles.
Police confiscated the works and launched an investigation.
Picasso “often invited me in to have some cake or a coffee. We talked about all things great and small with the master”, Le Guennec told AFP in 2010.
“One evening, I was leaving my work, when Madame handed me a little package, saying: ‘This is for you’,” he said.
“When I returned home, I saw sketches, drawings – I knew nothing about it. If Madame had given me a painting, on the other hand, that would have been odd.”
Jean-Jacques Neuer, lawyer for Claude Picasso, said the couple were deliberately vague.
“They don’t remember whether they received the ‘gift’ in 1970, ’71 or ’72. If you are given 271 Picassos, you remember it,” he said.
“You have to imagine that Picasso kept hold of them for 70 years and suddenly decided to give the lot away.”
That did not make sense, he said.
“The issue is not whether Picasso was generous or not. Picasso wasn’t someone who was careless about his works; he didn’t give away any old how.”
Charles-Etienne Gudin, lawyer for the couple, said the works came from the artist’s Grands-Augustins studio in Paris, and that there was no way the electrician could have stolen them from his final home, which was a “fortress” watched over by two security guards.
The trial is due to last three weeks.
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