GRASSE — It all started with a box. A box jam-packed with treasure — previously unseen, extremely rare Picasso drawings and collages, 271 works altogether. The box has been through everything imaginable. It survived flooding of the painter's workshop when the Seine River overflowed its banks, the German occupation, the Liberation, and it was carted about from home to home.
The deceased Pierre Daix, the best expert on the painter's works, once told us, "Picasso was often ejected from his Parisian workshops. He didn't know how to store his works anymore. It made him furious."
The box, one among thousands, then wound up in one of the villas on the French Riviera where the artist lived. Once Picasso filled one home with his paintings, he would buy another one to fill that too.
When the artist died in 1973, the box disappeared. No one noticed because his two villas, the "Californie" and the "Notre-Dame-de-Vie," were overflowing with paintings, sketches and packages.
A box worth €60 million
The box reappeared almost half a century later, and in a completely unexpected way. In 2010, electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle made themselves known to the Picasso Administration and claimed certificates of authenticity for these unpublished works. The box, they said, was given to them by Pablo Picasso and Jacqueline, his late wife who died in 1986. During the 40 previous years, they claimed to have forgotten it in their garage, at the back of their small house in Mouans-Sartoux, near Cannes.
This caused turmoil among the painter's heirs, who refused to believe the story of the gift and filed a complaint. The electrician and his wife were put under investigation for possession of stolen goods. The box was sealed off. Experts estimated its value at 60 million euros. Was it a gift or stolen goods? The trial that started in Grasse on Feb. 10 represents an unusual confrontation. On one side are the electrician and his wife. On the other, the millionaire heirs of Picasso's fortune.
Pierre le Guennec at his February trial — Photo: AFP video screenshot
It's the story of a modest couple of few words, and it doesn't seem ready to reveal its secrets. For the past four years, Pierre and Danielle Le Guennec have stuck to the same explanation: This collection of works was given to them, end of story. When, how, why? That's not as clear. It was in 1971 or in 1972. They don't remember exactly when. The drawings were "stuffed in a bin bag," Danielle told investigators. Pierre never mentioned a bin bag, only a box of old papers. "[Jacqueline] handed it to me and said, 'Here, for you,' and we never spoke of it again."
"A gift is a gift"
It's a mystery especially because Picasso, who was well aware of the market value of his work, always autographed the art he gave away. His late wife Jacqueline, guardian of the temple who worshiped the husband she called "my sunshine," revered each little piece of paper touched by his divine pen. According to Anne-Sophie Nardon, the lawyer for Jacqueline Picasso's daughter, "Picasso kept everything — used Metro tickets, bills, scribbled restaurant checks. So throwing out a box of drawings is unimaginable."
Jacqueline was also very organized. During the preliminary inquiry, a significant debt was also unearthed: In 1983, Picasso's widow loaned Le Guennec 540,000 francs (140,000 euros) so he could buy a taxi license. "If there indeed had been a gift, he could have sold the paintings to pay for it, couldn't he?" Nardon says.
On the phone, Danielle keeps it short. "A gift is a gift, and we've always said that. We just want to put an end to it, so we're looking forward to the trial."
We met the couple four years ago. In their modest home, there were copies of posters for Picasso exhibitions. The Le Guennecs showed us the garage in question where the treasure had been "forgotten" for 40 years. "Art is like Chinese for us," the couple kept saying. But the inventory they addressed to the Picasso Administration had been written very professionally. And their brother-in-law, we discovered, had an art gallery.
The cousin, driver and collector
Most importantly, Pierre Le Guennec remained oddly silent about his family relationship with the painter's driver, Maurice Bresnu (nicknamed "Teddy"). Teddy is Pierre's cousin by marriage who, it seems, got him to work for Picasso. The painter "spoiled" Teddy with hundreds of drawings. He died in 1991, leaving his widow to manage the gold mine.
A prestigious New York auction entitled, "Picasso, the secret collection," was held at Christie's in 1998 with the approval of Picasso's heirs. There were others in various places. Teddy Bresnu's widow died in 2009 with no children, leaving behind an estate of Picasso drawings and sketches worth 500,000 euros. An auction was even planned for December 2010 for full and final settlement.
That's when events took a dramatic turn. "The genealogist that managed the inheritance called us to warn us Pierre Le Guennec was part of the heirs of Maurice Bresnu's widow. We were astounded," says Jean-Jacques Neuer, the lawyer of the Picasso Administration.
Speaking to L’Obs, the Le Guennecs were always evasive concerning their links to Teddy: The two couples did indeed live in neighboring houses in the 1970s, they conceded, but they had a quarrel. "They looked down on us. We didn't even attend Maurice's funeral," Danielle told us. The two couples didn't see each other again for 30 years, even though Teddy Bresnu had been best man at the Le Guennecs wedding.
Teddy lived in self-sufficiency with his wife. He didn't show off. It was only shortly before his death that he decided to monetize his treasure. He went through a family relation, who owned a produce store in Saint-Ouen, on the outskirts of Paris. The latter contacted an antique dealer at the flea market, who knew an art expert. The small group was wiretapped during the investigation. What came out is reminescent of a Michel Audiard movie:
"You're gonna be mad at us, but we spilled the beans," the greengrocer’s wife said.
"That's OK. We have nothing to feel guilty about. Maya's done the certificates and all."
Maya? That's Maya Picasso, one of the few people entitled to attribute the precious certificates of authenticity. Why did the heir look the other way? At the time, experts of Picasso's works were surprised by the size of Teddy's collection, which included erotic drawings representing Jacqueline, an unusual gift to make your driver.
Picasso and his last wife Jacqueline — Photo: Globe Photos/ZUMA
To add value to some unsigned drawings that he had, Teddy even forged Picasso's signature with a pencil. It was so clumsily executed that Maya asked for these fake signatures to be removed. "Maya didn’t suspect a thing," he lawyer says. "She has been very shocked by these last revelations. She was conned. She believed in Teddy's good faith. And all the art dealers' who were pressuring her so the auction could take place."
"My aunt told me all the Picassos had been stolen," says Dominique, the niece of Teddy's widow. "When Teddy died, she ended up alone, so she made me come to her side by luring me with lots of promises. But we got nothing. I’m still a cleaning lady today. That being said, I prefer not having touched any of the Picasso money. It's dirty money."
Like Tolkien's cursed ring, the Picasso treasure drives people crazy. The artist left no will and had fallen out with his children, leaving a big mess behind him. Teddy Bresnu's widow, who never wrote down her last wishes, never really enjoyed her fortune. "She was incredibly cheap," her niece says. "In her fridge, everything was expired."
But strangely enough, once in a while, "gifts" still reappear. In 2011, two signed Picasso vases were auctioned, earning their lucky owners around 250,000 euros. "It's a gift Mrs. Bresnu made me," swears Michel F., the son of none other than the cleaning lady of Teddy's widow.
In the 1970s, the Picassos fully trusted Teddy and his cousin Pierre Le Guennec, who had replaced all the alarm systems in the painter's homes. Did the two men make the most to help themselves? A close relation of Teddy's remembers a day when he was furious at Pierre Le Guennec, who had "messed up at the Picassos," a situation that threatened to "cause problems for all of them." He claims he also heard Teddy's widow accusing the electrician of "helping himself to the Picassos."
Charles-Etienne Gudin, lawyer for the Le Guennecs, challenges this assertion, of course. "No link has been proven between the Bresnu collection and my client. The case was even partially dismissed."
In fact, the plaintiff's lawyers will have to acknowledge that there is no tangible proof of complicity between the driver and the electrician, only suspicion.
"But to prove the stolen goods, there's no need to find the author of the theft," says Sabine Cordesse, a lawyer for Maya Picasso. "It's the same story for the artwork despoiled by the Nazis. Possessing them is an offense."
If only boxes could speak.