The trial of Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle, who claim Picasso gave them 271 of his works, has started in southern France. Six of the artist's family accuse the couple of fraud.
Cameras were barred from the courtroom in Grasse in southern France as the trial began on Tuesday with the two defendants saying they had been given the works by Picasso and his then-wife Jacqueline 40 years ago.
"Picasso had total confidence in me. Maybe it was my discretion," Le Guennec told the court on Tuesday.
Le Guennec, a former electrician, claims that he was given the collection by the artist and his second wife Jacqueline when he carried out odd jobs for them. He said that Jacqueline handed him a closed box, saying: "Here, it's for you. Take it home."
Danielle has said Picasso was tidying his studio and handed the works to her husband, who brought them home in a trash bag. The works, produced between 1900 and 1932, have never been displayed publicly. They include portraits of Picasso's first wife, Olga, nine Cubist collages, a watercolor from his blue period, studies of his hand on canvas, gouaches, around 30 lithographs and 200 drawings.
According to his lawyer, in 2010 Le Guennec began worrying about what would become of the works after his death. So he and his wife took 175 works in a suitcase to the Picasso Administration headquarters in Paris. They showed them to Claude Picasso, the artist's son who administers his estate. The couple asked to have the works authenticated but a few days later, the pieces were confiscated by police and the couple was charged in 2011.
The state's case, based on witness accounts, suggested that Maurice Bresnu, a longtime driver for Picasso and the husband of a distant cousin of Pierre Le Guennec, had introduced him to Picasso. Bresnu allegedly took some works but he died in 1991, forestalling any prosecution.
Jean-Jacques Neuer, lawyer for Claude Picasso, said the couple was deliberately vague. "They don't remember whether they received the 'gift' in 1970, 71 or 72. If you are given 271 Picassos, you remember it," he said.
Picasso died in 1973, Jacqueline in 1986.
The Le Guennec's lawyer, Charles-Etienne Gudin, said the works came from the artist's "Grands-Augustins" studio in Paris, and it would have been impossible for the electrician to have taken them from the villa in Mougins, which was a "fortress" watched over by two security guards.
Most stolen artist
Picasso has become the most stolen artist in history due to his prolific output, recognizable signature and valuable works. More than a thousand of his paintings are registered as stolen, missing or disputed: that is more than twice as many as American artist Nick Lawrence, who's name appears in second on that list.
The couple face up to five years in prison and a €375,000 ($424,000) fine if convicted of concealing stolen goods.
jm/kms (AFP, Reuters)