A Picasso mystery examined by 60 Minutes

When 271 never-before-seen Picassos appeared in 2010 the art world was stunned. Were they a gift, as the couple who came forward with them claimed?

Two years ago, Pablo Picasso's painting The Women of Algiers, sold at Christie's for an art auction record of $179 million. Then in June of last year, one of his cubist works, Femme Assise, went for over $63 million.

So when a portfolio of 271 never-before-seen Picassos appeared in 2010 the art world was stunned.

But the biggest surprise may be where they had been for nearly 40 years. Picasso's former electrician, 77-year-old Pierre Le Guennec, and his wife Danielle kept the art treasures in their garage -- works they said were a gift from Pablo Picasso and his last wife, Jacqueline. 

The Picasso family heirs don't believe it. They suspect theft, but as we first reported last fall, the Le Guennecs stand by their story -- and it's a story that has captivated the art world.  

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Danielle and Pierre Le Guennec

CBS News

Danielle and Pierre Le Guennec are a retired couple living in the south of France. Back in 1971, he was an electrician hired by Pablo Picasso and his wife Jacqueline, to fix their American-made stove. The Picassos were so pleased, they had him to do other odd jobs on their properties including installing burglar alarms.

Bill Whitaker: How would you describe the relationship? Was it employee/employer? Or did you have a friendship?

Pierre Le Guennec: I believe that Monsieur had total trust in me. Particularly because of my discretion.

His discretion might be the only thing in this tale that isn't in dispute. As family electrician and handyman, Pierre Le Guennec had the run of Picasso's houses for 15 years starting before and stretching beyond the artist's death in 1973. One day in the early 1970s, he says, Jacqueline Picasso surprised him. 

Pierre Le Guennec: Madame called me into the hallway and said, "Come here, this is for you. And she handed me a box. I said "Thank you, Madame." I left and brought it back here.

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Pablo Picasso in his studio in Vallauris, France, Oct. 23, 1953.

AP

The Le Guennecs say they opened the box, and weren't impressed. They describe the contents as two Picasso sketchbooks and sheets of looseleaf paper – all unsigned.

Danielle Le Guennec: There were plenty of drawings that were repeated. For example, there was the body of a horse without the head… and the second part was only a head.

Danielle Le Guennec says, in general, she's not a big fan of Picasso's art.

Danielle Le Guennec: There are paintings where I don't know if the character is looking at me, not looking at me, the head is upside down it's on the side, and that's what made him famous. I'm not saying it's ugly, but I don't like it.

Bill Whitaker: So, you didn't think much of this box of paintings and sketches, and things that you received?

Pierre Le Guennec: If someone would've told me, "Mr. Le Guennec, go and throw this in the fire, I would have thrown it in the fire."

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Pierre Le Guennec and Bill Whitaker inside Le Guennec's garage

CBS News

Instead of burning the box, Pierre Le Guennec says it ended up on a shelf in his garage. It lived there undisturbed until 2010, when he says he was ill and facing surgery. That's when he thought he should get his affairs in order and wondered if that Picasso gift might be worth something. 

So, he contacted the Picasso Administration, run by Pablo Picasso's son, and described by hand-written letter and photos, what he had. The Picasso administration is the only place in the world that can certify the artist's work. Le Guennec wanted his box of art authenticated.

Pierre Le Guennec: They answered me by telling me that Claude Picasso wanted to see with his own eyes what it was we had and he gave us an appointment. So we went up to Paris, my wife and I, by train with a suitcase.

Bill Whitaker: Full of artwork?

Pierre Le Guennec: Yes. I organized them properly in cardboard folders so it could be presentable. 

Bill Whitaker: How were you greeted by Claude?

Pierre Le Guennec: He was a bit haughty.

Danielle Le Guennec: Impolite.

Pierre Le Guennec: He's a monsieur and we are little people.

Danielle Le Guennec: He didn't even say 'hello'.

Bill Whitaker: Like little people?

Danielle Le Guennec: He looked at me and said 'You, you can sit over there.' One cannot say we were welcomed. That's not very polite, considering he's the son of a genius.

Bill Whitaker: Kind of snobbish, you say?

Pierre Le Guennec: Yes.

Danielle Le Guennec: Yes, snob.

Pierre Le Guennec: …a man who represents wealth.

But Claude Picasso himself, the artist's third child and one of five living heirs, remembers the meeting differently.

"The explanations were a bit murky. But I quickly understood that they must have stolen them." 

Claude Picasso: I start-- you know, asking questions and so on. And they said they were given these things by my father. Then later on, a little bit later on in the conversation they said that some of them were given to them by my father's widow.

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Claude Picasso

CBS News

The stash contained works spanning more than 30 years from 1900 to 1932. Some were preliminary sketches of well-known works displayed in museums and galleries around the world, like this one from 1932, "Woman Seated in Red Armchair" at the Musee Picasso in Paris. The similarity is striking. And then there's this one: a never-before-seen portrait of Olga, Picasso's first wife and constant subject for nearly 20 years.  Included in the 271 works were six sketches, 28 lithographs and nine cubist collages -- considered museum quality. There were also those two full sketch pads with 81 drawings. An art trove later valued at as much as $100 million. Claude Picasso could not believe his eyes and did not believe the Le Guennecs. 

Claude Picasso: The explanations were a bit murky. But I quickly understood that they must have stolen them.

Bill Whitaker: Did you know, immediately, that they were real?

Claude Picasso: Yes, but I didn't tell them that.

Bill Whitaker: You didn't wanna give anything away.

Claude Picasso: I couldn't because it was so – it was so amazing. And they kept pulling out things.

Bill Whitaker: More and more—

Claude Picasso: More and more and more. So at a certain point I said, "Is that all?" And they said, "No, no, no. We have some more here." And I-- I couldn't-- I c-- that's incredible. And-- and but I-- you know, I didn't say anything at all—

Bill Whitaker: You didn't reveal anything on your face—

Claude Picasso: "How nice. How lucky," whatever, you know, some

banality like this. And-- I had to let them go. 'Cause there is no system that can make me-- clamp down on these possessions.

Bill Whitaker: You couldn't seize them.

Claude Picasso: No, no—

Bill Whitaker: So you had to let them go—

Claude Picasso: You have to let that go. I knew what I had to do next.

Bill Whitaker: You called the police.

Claude Picasso: Yes.

The police opened an investigation. Three weeks later, the gendarmes were at the Le Guennec door.  They seized the works - - and they seized the couple. 

Pierre Le Guennec: We were taken into custody to Nice, my wife in one car and I in another and I was held there for two days.

Danielle Le Guennec: I spent one day in jail, I was devastated -- so devastated that I've been seeing a psychiatrist. I am not over it. I can still see that jail cell. And I'd like to add, if I can use this language, it didn't just smell bad, it stank.

Bill Whitaker: You don't believe they were kept in their garage for 40 years?

Both Jean-Jacques Neuer and Claudia Andrieu: No.

Jean-Jacques Neuer and Claudia Andrieu, lawyers representing the Picasso administration, say the condition of the art is too pristine to have been kept on a shelf in a garage for almost 40 years. They don't buy any part of the Le Guennecs story.

Bill Whitaker: Why not?

Claudia Andrieu: It's impossible.

Jean-Jacques Neuer: It's impossible. It's nonsense, and to be very frank with you, we believe that Mr. Le Guennec is a swindler. 

The Le Guennecs say they're honest people caught in a David and Goliath battle with the Picasso heirs. Snooty art moguls who can't handle the idea that a modest family might be worthy of the artist's gift.

Danielle Le Guennec: We are simple people. We love our home and our garden. We've never travelled.

Bill Whitaker: They say that you folks were a little snobbish and perhaps looking down on them, because they're just little people, simple people, they call themselves.

Jean-Jacques Neuer: They play on that. It's pure manipulation, it's fantastic. It's-- it's the-- the poor—

Bill Whitaker: You don't believe that they are simple people—

Jean-Jacques Neuer: They are simple people, this is not the problem. We believe that they play on this to try to obtain sympathy from the public.

The family lawyers also question the meticulous language Pierre Le Guennec used to describe the works which they say could only have come from an art expert. But the retired electrician denies the accusation, and says he wrote every word himself.

These works by Picasso were deemed so valuable they immediately were seized and brought here for safekeeping – one of the most secure places in the country: the Bank of France. This is the Fort Knox of France: the country's gold reserves are kept here too.

In February 2015, the Le Guennecs went on trial. There wasn't enough evidence to prove they stole the art, so prosecutors charged them with possessing stolen property.

Witnesses who knew Pablo Picasso and his wife, Jacqueline, testified it was impossible anyone would get such a generous gift from the master.

Maya Picasso, the artist's second child, says it's entirely out of character for the father she lived with the first 20 years of her life.

Maya Picasso : My father gave – he gave pretty easily be it money or a sweater, if you were cold. But giving away artworks? No!

Even more unlikely, she says, was parting with his portraits of his first wife.

Maya Picasso: There's a beautiful portrait of Olga when she was young. You know, love is something beautiful, and when you're living it and decide to draw it, it's more than a picture. So he would have never given something like that away.

In his defense, Pierre Le Guennec presented this signed gift as evidence his relationship with the Picassos was more than just doing odd jobs. The Picasso family says an autographed pamphlet is exactly the type of small gift he might have received from Pablo Picasso.

Jean-Jacques Neuer: It's a little brochure dedicated and signed by Picasso. And when he came, he gave this little brochure. As a, "See, Picasso knew me," and his excuse to have all these works which were obviously stolen, was that he had this little brochure.

When Danielle Le Guennec took the stand she insisted she had a close friendship with Jacqueline Picasso, claiming Madame Picasso considered the Le Guennec home a refuge from the pressures of being the wife and widow of the 20th century's best-known artist. 

"As I said in court, they may have taken away the works, but the most beautiful painting I ever had was my friendship with Jacqueline and that is something they will never be able to take away."

Danielle Le Guennec: Jacqueline was a wonderful person who taught me a lot. Because she spoke so much about her husband, I got to know him. My friendship with Jacqueline lasted until the very end…14 years of loyalty…I accompanied her to her final resting place. 

Bill Whitaker to Danielle Le Guennec: Jacqueline, Jacqueline, Jacqueline… She wrote to you quite often…

Danielle Le Guennec keeps mementos of her relationship with the late Mrs.Picasso -- handwritten postcards she considers more valuable than a Picasso itself.

Danielle Le Guennec: As I said in court, they may have taken away the works, but the most beautiful painting I ever had was my friendship with Jacqueline and that is something they will never be able to take away.

The story of how the Le Guennecs aquired these works remains a mystery – were they a generous gift?  Were they stolen? Much like Picasso's art, this tale is intriguing, abstract and ultimately left to each of us to make sense of it all. In court the Le Guennecs were found guilty and given a two-year suspended sentence. They are appealing.

Bill Whitaker: If you had known then what you know now, would you have taken the artwork to Claude?

Pierre Le Guennec: 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. 

Last fall, the Le Guennecs appeared before a French appeals court and admitted they had lied. They said Jacqueline Picasso had asked them to store the art to keep it from French authorities and from her step children. As you might expect, Picasso family members think this latest story also is a lie. The French court upheld the Le Guennec's two-year sentence and ordered the art returned to Picasso's heirs.

All work by Picasso: © 2016 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York  

Produced by Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson and Sabina Castelfranco.