Is an Electrician the greatest Picasso Thief?

Pierre Le Guennec and his wife

It would be hard to top 271. Police in France have charged a man and his wife with selling 271 stolen Picassos. He claims Picasso gave them as a gift:

Pierre Le Guennec, 71, was caught and sued along with his wife when he contacted the late Spanish painter’s estate seeking to authenticate the works, which he had kept in his garage for nearly 40 years, Le Monde newspaper said.
The local public prosecutors’s office declined to confirm the report to AFP and Le Guennec and his lawyer could not be reached for comment.
The report said Le Guennec claimed Picasso and his wife and muse Jacqueline had personally given him the works when he was working at their farmhouse in Mougins, not far from his own home in Mouans-Sartoux, southeastern France.
Investigators found however that some of the works — which include collages, sketches and prints — disappeared from another location, Le Monde said. They seized the works and charged the couple with handling stolen goods.

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Settlement in Nazi-Era Dispute

One of the week’s big stories I haven’t had a chance to talk about was the decision by the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim foundation and the heirs of Paul and Elsa von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to settle their ongoing claim.  The undisclosed settlement was announced earlier this week, just as jury selection was set to take place in U.S. District Court in New York. 

Unfortunately the settlement will not allow us to learn how these important works were acquired.  Both the claimants offered very different perspectives.  The issue would have likely been when the paintings were transferred — in 1927 before the Nazi rise to power, or in 1935 when Hitler had become Fuhrer.  Said Judge Rakoff, “I find it extraordinarily unfortunate that the public will be left without knowing what the truth is …  The public surely would want to know now and forever which of those diametrically different views was true, and the great crucible of a trial would have made that known”.

Boy Leading a Horse, Picasso, 1905-06/Museum of Modern Art

Le Moulin de la Galette, Picasso, 1900/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
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Returning, Recovering and Punishing

Three stories caught my eye this morning:

First, Police in Sao Paulo have recovered a Pablo Picasso print that was stolen back in June (mentioned earlier here). The police have already recovered three other works. Details are thin, but what often takes place in these kinds of recoveries is thieves or their agents will offer to sell a portion of a group of stolen works, holding the remaining works as a kind of collateral against possible arrest.

Second, the FBI in its continuing investigation into the William M.V. Kingsland collection is trying to track down the owners of 300 works. This work, Riders in a Landscape by Henry Aiken (~1840) is included in the collection. You can read more about the rather bizarre Kingsland collection here. If you have any information on the Kingsland collection, you can contact FBI Agent Wynne at 7182867302, or by email at James.Wynne “at”

Finally, in the Mardirosian trial, Federal District Court Judge Mark Wolf dismissed a stolen transportation charge as the NSPA does not in his view apply to a transfer between Switzerland and England. He does still face a charge for possessing or concealing the stolen works though.

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3 Picasso Works Recovered

Police have recovered 3 important works by Pablo Picasso stolen from the home of the artist’s granddaughter in February. These two canvases– Portrait de femme, Jacqueline pictured on the left and Maya à la poupée on the right. Another drawing, Marie-Thérèse à 21 ans was recovered as well. Details of the February theft are available here.

Three suspects have been arrested. In February police estimated the drawings may have been worth as much as $66 million. It seems the suspects were shopping the works to art dealers, and one of the dealers contacted French police. The suspects would have had a very difficult time selling the works, as they are widely known. Hopefully there will be a similar recovery of the works stolen from Nice on Sunday.

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Picasso Theft from a Seattle Mall

Two etchings by Pablo Picasso were stolen from the Bellevue Square mall last week the Seattle Times reports. This is Bacchic Scene with Minotaur which was taken along with Aquatinte 26 Mai 1968. It seems a woman distracted the store clerks by asking about a work in the back of the gallery while two men casually took the etchings out of the mall. These aren’t masterworks, but their $92,000 estimated value is nothing to sniff at.

The chances these drawings will be returned quickly are probably not good. The most likely scenario is that a subsequent purchaser who didn’t know about the works’ tainted past will end up in a dispute with the gallery or the Insurance company if the gallery was able to insure the works. The Seattle piece says “unscrupulous art collectors have few qualms about purchasing stolen pieces for their private collections.” I think that may be over-stating the case a bit. In most situations the ultimate litigant is a buyer who was unaware a work had been stolen. This is why buyers should always consult organizations like the Art Loss Register before every significant purchase, and provenance should be thoroughly researched.

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Stolen Picassos

These two works by Pablo Picasso were stolen. The two works, Portrait of Jacqueline (1938) on the left and Maya with Doll (1961) on the right, will be nearly impossible to sell. They were taken from a home in Paris’ 7th Arrondissement between Monday and Tuesday of this week. They were stolen from Diana Widmaier-Picasso, the granddaughter of the artist. Their combined value is estimated at $66 million.

Alan riding of the New York Times has an excellent story here, and there are various AP stories floating around as well.

Speculation will abound about who stole these works and why. That’s the ultimate question. Was it the mob, criminals eager to ransom the work back, or even a wealthy evil genius who had it stolen to order? If I had to guess, I would say it was probably taken by experienced thieves. They will put it in a bank vault, and attempt to work out a settlement with the owners in a few years, perhaps even brokered by the Art Loss Register.

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Venture Capitalists fuelling Nazi restitution claims?

Georgina Adam of the Art Newspaper had an article last week about some of the potential driving forces behind recent repatriation litigation. Pictured here is Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I” (1907), recently repatriated after binding arbitration found Maria Altmann the rightful of this and four other works.

The increasing number of Nazi repatriation claims, and the booming art market lead to the possibility that not all the parties involved are motivated by high-minded ideals. As Federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff noted during his ruling dismissing a claim over a Picasso, “[art auctions are] all guided by their belief in and beauty…though one might suspect that this is just a fight about money”. In her piece Adam labels some of these opportunistic lawyers “Nazi bounty hunters,”as they are actively seeking war loot. She references Washington lawyer Willi Korte who has been approached by venture capitalists prepared invest $1 million in the hopes that it would lead to a successful restitution claim.

It seems some lawyers are working backwards. They consult art historians about what works might have been looted, and then search for heirs who may want to bring claims. Jost von Trott, a Berlin lawyer, who specializes in this type of research says to the Art Newspaper

It might be that while doing research in these matters, one of the historians [I work with] comes across a further name of another Jewish family who lost property during the Nazi period. If the researchers find another name in the archives, then they or we could contact them as well and see if we can help in recovering lost objects.

Initially, I don’t see anything wrong with the work von Trott describes here. It seems quite a valuable service. Consider though that these firms charge as much as 40% to 50% of the sale price of a work for a successful recovery, while there is no charge if the claim is unsuccessful. Other claims beside the recent Picasso dismissal have been criticized as opportunistic and quickly dismissed as well. A $1.8 billion class action suit was brought by the Association of Holocaust Victims for Restitution of Artwork and Masterpieces against Sotheby’s.

Though there are certainly clear cases where restitution is called for, some of these cases stretch the limits of the law, and are causing unnecessary and costly litigation for owners of these works. The idea of venture capitalists seeking out an attorney and urging him to pursue research on potential claimants strikes me a particularly unpleasant though, and strongly cuts against the whole nature of restitution claims.

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Picasso Pulled

The Picasso I discussed yesterday was removed from auction today, even after a Federal District Court Judge dismissed the claimant’s suit. Apparently he brought suit in NY State Court today. At first blush, I don’t think he has much of a case. We will see how accommodating the NY courts will be though, I suppose.

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Sale of Picasso’s "The Absinthe Drinker" may be halted

Christie’s may have a difficult time breaking the single-auction record today. The Art Newspaper reports the auction house is considering removing the work from the sale. Andrew Lloyd Webber was attempting to sell the work, estimated at $60 million, with the proceeds going to charity. The work, from Picasso’s blue period, was also the subject of a Federal District Court Case, dismissed yesterday.

The dismissal has not been published yet on Lexis, but the New York Times has an overview of the claimant’s case. Judge Jed Rakoff dismissed the claims because the federal law dealing with Holocaust restitution was inapplicable in this case. I’m not an expert on holocaust litigation, so I’m not sure which law the NYT is talking about. Apparently, the claimant has a case in New York state court however.

The claims seem tenuous to me at first blush. The plaintiff, Mr. Schoeps, is the heir of Paul von Mendelssohn-Barthold, a wealthy Berlin banker and art collector. He was forced to sell all his paintings as a result of Nazi persecution. The Nazi’s didn’t actually take the painting, but they seized his assets so that he had no choice but to sell the work. The ruling was just issued yesterday. I’ll try to get my hands on the dismissal and look at the substance of the claims. To me, though, it seems like the claimant will have a very difficult time winning the case. We shouldn’t underestimate the underlying equities of a case either, Lloyd Webber was selling the work in order to donate the proceeds to charity. Though Mr. Schoeps story is indeed a tragic one, I’m not sure he will be using the work, or its proceeds, in as charitable a manner.

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