Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle Le Guennec had their 2015 convictions for possession of stolen goods annulled by France’s highest appeals court on February 28, 2018. The Le Guennec’s convictions were based on the discovery in 2010 that for almost 40 years they stored in their garage 271 artworks created by Pablo Picasso. When Picasso died in 1973 he was the most famous artist in the world.
In 1971 Pierre was a 32 year old electrician living in Mougins, France with his wife Danielle. Mougins is on the Mediterranean Sea about 425 miles southeast of Paris.
Picasso and his wife Jacqueline had a villa in Mougins. They hired Pierre to fix their stove. Pleased with his work, they hired him to do other jobs, including installing a burglar alarm. Pablo and Jacqueline became friends with Pierre and Danielle.
Picasso was 92 when he died in 1973. Jacqueline gave Pierre a dozen or so bags full of artwork by Picasso for safekeeping. Pierre stored the bags in his garage. Sometime later Jacqueline retrieved the bags but, as Pierre tells it, she gave him a box of artwork as a thank you for his help. Pierre put the box on a shelf in his garage where it remained for almost 40 years. Pierre says he put it out of his mind.
Jacqueline died in 1983.
Pierre came across the box in 2009. He and Danielle opened it and found it had two sketchbooks and many sheets of loose-leaf paper with drawings. None of the artwork was signed.
In 2010 Pierre was ill and facing surgery. Thinking he should get his affairs in order he wanted to know if the artwork in the box was created by Picasso, and what it might be worth.
The Picasso Administration in Paris is the only place in the world that can certify a work as a genuine Picasso. Pierre wrote a letter to the Administration describing the artwork he had, and included some photos. Claude Picasso, who runs the Administration, responded by inviting the Le Guennecs to come to Paris with some of the artwork.
Pierre and Danielle went to Paris and met with Claude. He recognized that all the artwork they showed him was authentic, but he didn’t tell that to them. What he did was call the police, who opened an investigation. Three weeks later the police searched the Le Guennec’s house and garage. The box of artwork was seized and the couple was arrested. They were released two days later. The 271 pieces of artwork in the box included drawings, sketches, lithographs and very rare cubist collages. The artwork was transported to the Bank of France in Paris, which is considered the most secure place in the country.
The Le Guennec’s were charged with possession of stolen goods. They weren’t charged with theft because there was no evidence they had stolen the artwork. Their prosecution was pressed by Claude Picasso who was very public in dismissing their claim they had stored the artwork in their garage for almost 40 years, and that his step-mother had given it to them. Claude claimed — without offering any proof — that Pierre was a swindler associated with an international stolen art laundering operation.
The prosecution’s case during the Le Guennec’s trial in 2015 was based on the testimony of a number of witnesses who knew Picasso and Jacqueline. The witnesses all claimed neither of them was generous enough to have given anyone the gift of a box of his artwork.
Danielle testified in her defense that she had a close friendship with Jacqueline Picasso, who “considered the Le Guennec home a refuge from the pressures of being the wife and widow of the 20th century’s best-known artist.”
After being found guilty, Pierre and Danielle were each given two year suspended prison sentences.
Their convictions and sentences were affirmed in 2016 but the Cour de Cassation, which also ordered that the artwork be given to Picasso’s heirs.
The Le Guennec’s appealed.
CBS’ Sixty Minutes did a program about the case that was broadcast on July 30, 2017. Pierre was interviewed in his home, and he was asked the question: “If you had known then what you know now, would you have taken the artwork to Claude?” Pierre responded: “If this had to be done all over again, well Monsieur, the box would’ve ended up in the chimney in the room right behind you there.”
On February 28, 2018 France’s Court of Cassation overturned the Le Guennec’s convictions, ruling the prosecution introduced insufficient evidence that “the goods held by the suspects had been stolen.” The Court stated a conviction for “handling stolen goods only stands if the theft itself can be demonstrated.”
The Court ordered a retrial. However, for the case to proceed against the Le Guennec’s, someone else will have to be charged with stealing the artwork, and the prosecution will have to argue the couple were knowing accomplices for storing it for the thief (or thieves) for 37 years. In the almost eight years since their arrest, the authorities have not suggested the Le Guennec’s were involved with anyone.
Picasso’s 271 artworks seized from the Le Guennec’s garage were created betwen 1900 and 1932. The artwork has not been assessed, but it is estimated to be worth $85 million to $125 million.
If the retrial ends favorably for the Le Guennec’s then a court will need to determine if the artwork is to be returned to them since the legal presumption would be it was given to them as a gift, or if the artwork would be turned over to Picasso’s heirs.