As a retired odd job man and electrician, Pierre Le Guennec is the unlikeliest of art collectors to be discovered with a haul of 271 unknown works by Picasso.
It is perhaps why the French police arrested the 71-year-old when they discovered the cache of sketches and paintings worth £50m at his Riviera home.
Mr Le Guennec claims that he was given the collection by the artist when he carried out odd jobs for him at his Côte d’Azur home 40 years ago.
However, Picasso’s son, Claude, suspects that the works were stolen.
Mr Le Guennec sent 26 amateur photographs of some of the works in August to Claude Picasso, who runs his father’s estate, asking to have the works authenticated.
The heir at first thought the works were fakes, as there was no record of them in his files, but intrigued, he asked to meet the sender.
Mr Le Guennec and his wife then travelled from their home on the Côte d’Azur to the Picasso Administration headquarters in Paris. To Claude Picasso’s shock, they proceeded to unpack 175 totally unknown pieces from a suitcase, including two notebooks containing 97 drawings.
They left more photographs of studies for Picasso’s famous Trois Graces, a dog fight, a crucifixion, satyrs, landscapes and a hanged man from his blue period.
Art experts swiftly concluded that not even the greatest counterfeiter could have copied such a wealth of different styles, and there was no way they could have faked the classification numbers on some of them.
With the works authenticated, six Picasso heirs decided to file for charges against “persons unknown”. Police swooped on Mr Le Guennec’s flat in Mouans Sartoux, near Cannes, arresting him on suspicion of handling illegally obtained goods.
Days later, they seized the entire collection, which is currently being held in a vault in Nanterre, outside Paris at France’s Central Office for the Fight against Traffic in Cultural Goods, part of the Interior Ministry.
During questioning, Mr Le Guennec insisted the entire haul came from gifts from “the master” but then apparently changed his story, saying they were a gift from Picasso’s second wife Jaqueline Roque, who committed suicide in 1986.
He said he was given the works after installing alarm systems at three of the artist’s Riviera homes in the three years until his death in 1973 — La Californie, the villa he bought in Cannes in 1955, his chateau de Vauvenargues and Notre-Dame-de-Vie, the farmhouse in Mougins where he died.
But Picasso’s heirs pointed out that the artist was reluctant to gave away any works, obsessively kept everything and forbade people to enter his studio.
“To give such a large quantity (away) frankly doesn’t stand up. It was part of his life,” Claude Picasso said. He said that many of the pieces were not even dated, which, he said signified they should never have left the studio.
“He always dated, signed and wrote dedications in his gifts, knowing that some people would go on to sell them to meet their needs.” Mr Le Guennec’s wife yesterday insisted the works had been given by Jacqueline Roque in good faith. “We are not thieves. We have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said.
“My clients are very surprised to be accused of theft,” said the Le Guennecs’ lawyer, who added the couple had contacted the Picasso Administration “to find out (the works’) value”.
“It was for their grandchildren, to keep them in the family; they’re not art experts,” she said.
A protracted legal battle is expected to ensue to determine the works’ rightful owners.
In the meantime, the pieces are a goldmine for Picasso experts. “Above all what counts is to retrieve a collection which is of historic importance for art history,” said a lawyer for the artist’s family.
By Henry Samuel, Paris 4:15PM GMT 29 Nov 2010