271 Unknown Picasso Pieces Turn Up In France

A retired French electrician, who once worked for Pablo Picasso, reveals he has 271 previously unknown works by the late 20th century painter.

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A collection of never-before-seen works of art by Pablo Picasso has surfaced in France. A retired electrician says Picasso gave the artworks to him. Reporter Eleanor Beardsley explains why Picasso's heirs disagree.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The discovery of the 271 heretofore unknown works by the great 20th century master Pablo Picasso made nationwide news. The paintings and drawings had been squirreled away for more than 40 years in a box in the garage of Picassos electrician. Art critics say they could be worth many millions.

Seventy-one-year-old Pierre Le Guennec installed burglar alarms at Picassos houses in the south of France before the artist died in 1973. Yesterday the retired electrician told French radio how he came by the art.

Mr. PIERRE LE GUENNEC (Electrician): (Through translator) Its very simple. The Mr. and Mrs. gave me some drawings and things one night after work. The Mrs. actually put them in my hands. But thats the story. They just gave them to me. Maybe he was happy about my work.

Unidentified Woman #1: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: You didnt steal them, asks the interviewer. Ah, non, insists Le Guennec, that wouldve been impossible. The electrician then describes with great familiarity the comings and goings of the secretaries and guards in the Picasso household.

Unidentified Woman #2: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: At one point, Le Guennecs wife chimes in to explain how they kept the art in a box in the garage with their other souvenirs.

The existence of the artwork surfaced in September, when Le Guennec contacted Picassos son, Claude Picasso, to get them authenticated. The day following their meeting, Claude Picasso filed a lawsuit against the couple for illegal receipt of the works. Claude Picasso spoke with Vincent Noce, an art critic who writes for the newspaper Liberation, which broke the story yesterday.

Mr. VINCENT NOCE (Art Critic): They've kept this secret for 40 years and now theyre saying, oh, it was given to us. No, its not legal and its not logical. There is no way that Picasso or his wife would have given some historical pieces like this, especially to someone who was not even a friend of him.

BEARDSLEY: Noce says the art dates from Picassos most creative period, from 1900 to 1932. It includes lithographs, watercolors and sketches, and a portrait of Picassos first wife, ballerina Olga Khokhlova. But the most important pieces are the nine cubist collages, says Noce.

Mr. NOCE: It was made in 1912. Picasso was cutting some bits and pieces here and there. He would make sort of little paper and cardboard sculptures. And these are highly valuable. Almost all of these have disappeared.

BEARDSLEY: The collection has been seized by police and Le Guennec has spent two days in detention being questioned. But Noce says he continues to stick by his story, even though he has altered it a few times.

Mr. NOCE: The fact is that you cannot sue someone for stealing a work of art, even of this importance, so late. Thats one big legal problem and this is probably why the family has waited more than 40 years to show this treasure.

BEARDSLEY: Noce says a multimillion-dollar legal battle over the ownership of the paintings will now begin. But he says it may be very difficult for the Picasso family to get everything back.

For NPR news, Im Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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