Thoughts on The Picasso Hoard

I have been quite amazed over the past 24 hours to receive a mountain of messages from friends and followers via this blog, email, Twitter, and Facebook, all alerting me to yesterday’s announcement concerning a recently-discovered hoard of works by Pablo Picasso. In this particular case, the pieces have turned up in the collection of the artist’s former electrician. Given the sheer volume of mail I have received, clearly a number of you wish me to comment on this unusual event; let it never be said that I fail to indulge my readers’ curiosity.

For those who have missed the story, it seems that Pierre Le Guennec, a retired electrician who worked for Picasso in the 1970’s, approached Claude Picasso, son of the artist, seeking to have 271 works in his possession authenticated as being by the great Spanish modernist. The Picasso estate has now cried foul, alleging that the works were misappropriated. M. Le Guennec claims that the cache of paintings, drawings, and collages were given to him during Picasso’s lifetime by the last Madame Picasso, with the implied consent of Picasso himself. Picasso died in 1973; his second wife and later widow, Jacqueline Roque, committed suicide in 1986. Thus, French authorities will not be able to question either the artist or Mme. Picasso as to whether this claim stands up on closer scrutiny.

At present investigation is taking place into the ownership of the works, and the pieces are under judicial control. Claude Picasso has expressed his doubt that his father would have sanctioned something like this, or given away such a wealth of material to a single individual, given the artist’s very keen commercial sense of the value of his own work. There are also allegations that the story of how these pieces came into the collection of the electrician has changed several times. However, let us leave facts and evidence with respect to possession and title to those invested with authority to consider such matters, and focus on a single area of consideration: the importance of some of the earlier works in this collection, whatever its origin or legal status.

One of the pieces in question is apparently a watercolor which, if authenticated, comes from Picasso’s (arguably) best period, that known as the “Blue Period” of 1901-1904. It is by no means an exaggeration to state that every serious art collector, institution and museum in the world would love to own even a single piece from this comparatively brief era in Picasso’s long career. Such a piece would be a highlight of any modern art collection.

Iconic works from Picasso’s Blue Period include the “The Old Guitarist” of c. 1903-1904 now at the Art Institute of Chicago – which is probably my favorite Picasso painting of all – or “The Tragedy” of 1903 in the collection of the National Gallery here in D.C. They show a very Spanish sensibility, bringing to mind the work of the great 16th century Spanish Old Master El Greco, as well as an older contemporary of Picasso, the great Catalan post-impressionist/modernist (almost pre-expressionist) painter Isidre Nonell. Even though he spent most of his adult life under self-imposed exile in France, Picasso always seemed to be focused on Spain.

From a valuation standpoint, what can one guess in terms of this single Blue Period piece alone? As recently as this summer, a Picasso Blue Period oil, a portrait of his friend Angel Fernandez de Soto, was sold by Andrew Lloyd-Webber at Christie’s in London for over $50 million. Watercolors by Picasso, even from the Blue Period, tend not to attract as much bidding as oils, of course; by their nature, watercolors are often fragile, small, and not as impressive for a collector with money to burn as a more durable oil painting on canvas. Still, earlier this month at Christie’s New York house, a Blue Period watercolor painted in Barcelona on a sheet of paper just slightly over standard letter size was sold for over $800,000 – well above its pre-sale estimate of $500,000-700,000.

Whatever proves to be the ultimate fate regarding ownership of these newly-discovered pieces, their reemergence – and particularly the sketchbooks and notebooks included in this cache – will provide art historians and scholars with the real wealth in this situation. They will shed additional light on the thought process and working methods of the most important artist of the 20th century. For that reason alone, it would be a very grand thing if they were to go into the collection of the Picasso Museum in Paris (or dare one say it, Barcelona) for experts to pour over contentedly, and for the public to admire and appreciate.

Old Man with Guitar by Pablo Picasso (c. 1903-1904)
Art Institute of Chicago

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