Picasso’s handyman again convicted for possessing stolen paintings

Court finds trove of works were not a gift, as handymain claims

Today's expression: Zero in on
Explore more: Lesson #214
December 9, 2019:

A French appeals court has found that Pierre Le Guennec, the former handyman to Pablo Picasso, was in possession of stolen work by the famous artist. Le Guennec said that the paintings had been a gift and were in his garage for decades, but the artist's estate believes the goods were stolen and that smugglers were using Le Guennec as cover to bring the work back into the legitimate market. For now, the artwork remains at the Bank of France. Plus, learn the English phrasal verb "zero in on."

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Picasso’s former handyman and electrician comes forward with 271 paintings. Where did they come from?

Hi there, welcome to Plain English. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and this is episode 214 of Plain English, the best podcast for practicing English. That’s because we got a bit slower than native speed, so you can understand every word. And if you miss a word, not to worry: you can find a transcript of the program at PlainEnglish.com/214.

Coming up today: Pablo Picasso’s former handyman had a trove of 271 paintings in his garage—so he says. A court says otherwise, and the handyman has been convicted of possessing stolen goods. Later on, we’ll talk about the phrasal verb “zero in on” and we have a quote of the week, often attributed to Picasso. But that too was stolen! I’ll tell you the quote and who originally said it later on in the episode.

I’ve been asking many of you, what is the hardest thing about learning English? And by far the most common answer is, “speaking.” There are a lot of answers, but the most common is speaking. And I know exactly what you mean. I am going to be working on some additional ways to incorporate speaking practice into Plain English and Plain English Plus+. If you’d like to tell me what the hardest thing about learning English is for you, join our email community at PlainEnglish.com/mail and you’ll get the opportunity to write back and tell me the hardest thing for you. And once again, to the hundreds of you, literally, who wrote back already, thank you so much for sharing your perspective.


Picasso’s handyman in stolen-goods controversy

Take a peek in most people’s garages and you can usually expect to find thing like cars, lawn mowers, rakes, tools, things like that. You might even find stored holiday decorations, old bikes or a discarded tire. But what about millions of dollars’ worth of art stashed away for decades? That’s what Pierre Le Guennac says he had in his garage. The handyman and electrician says they were a gift from his former employer, a certain Pablo Picasso. A court says otherwise: he and his wife were convicted of possession of stolen goods.

Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso (deep breath!) or, mercifully for short, Pablo Picasso, was one of the most famous artists of the Twentieth Century. He is world-renowned for his paintings, sculptures, drawings, ceramics and prints and is especially known for being one of the creators of the Cubism style of art.

He created more than 40,000 pieces in his career, and his work is popular around the world. His painting, Women of Algiers (Version O)—the fifteenth in the series—sold for $179 million in 2015 and Le Rêve sold for $155 million back in 2013. It’s not all smooth sailing, however. Because he’s so famous, and because he produced so much in his career, his work is often the target of high-quality forgeries. Picasso pieces have been stolen several times over the years. The FBI database of stolen art is full of records of stolen Picassos.

Enter Picasso’s electrician, handyman, and possibly loyal friend Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle Le Guennec. Mr. Le Guennec, now 80 years old, worked for Picasso in the 1970’s for about fifteen years on several odd jobs. Initially, Mrs. Le Guennec claimed that Picasso gave the couple the artwork as a gift, as thanks for Mr. Le Guennec’s loyalty back then. However, the story has evolved. Later, Mr. Le Guennec said that Picasso’s wife at the time, Jacqueline Roque, gave him the artwork. He said that she was trying to hide it from her stepson Claude Picasso. As the story goes, the ex-wife asked the Le Guennec’s to hide about a dozen garbage bags with Picasso’s work. In the end, he says, she generously gave him one of those bags as a token of her gratitude. They’ve been in the garage ever since.

In 2010, the Le Guennec’s gathered up several of the pieces in a suitcase and brought them to the Picasso estate in Paris. Pierre LeGuennec said that he had cancer and he wanted to authenticate them for his children. The only place to do that was at the office of the Picasso estate. If Mr. Le Guennec or his children wanted to sell the artwork, they could only do so if the pieces had been authenticated first.

The estate is run by Pablo’s son, Claude Picasso, the very person that the art was supposedly being hidden from. Claude took a look at the paintings and determined that they were, in fact, authentic. But he also believed that the pieces had been stolen and he called the police. The artwork was then seized from the Le Guennecs’ residence: a total of 271 pieces created between approximately 1900 and 1932 were confiscated. A lawsuit later followed.

Claude Picasso and the estate think the paintings were stolen, and that the handyman is being used as cover to bring the art back into the legitimate market. They have zeroed in on the credibility of the handyman’s story. They think several parts of this story don’t exactly hold water. First of all, Pablo’s son believed that his father simply would not have just given them away, especially in such a large collection. In addition, almost all the pieces of work were not signed, as most Picasso gifts were.

Then there is the matter of the trash bags and the garage. The seized pieces were in good condition; had they been stuffed in a trash bag and stored in a garage, they would have deteriorated. Instead, lawyers think the art was preserved, as if by a private collector—an expert or an art lover. Speaking of which, the artwork stuffed in a plastic bag came with a detailed, academic-style catalog, which the estate thinks would have been beyond the handyman’s abilities to create. They think the catalog was written by an expert, such as an art smuggler.

Over the last several years, this battle has played out in court with seemingly no end. Claude Picasso initially filed a lawsuit in 2010, and the Le Guennec’s were first convicted of theft in 2015. They appealed, and the conviction was upheld in 2016, then was overturned in 2018. An appeals court ordered a new trial, which is the one that just recently took place. This final conviction can no longer be appealed. Despite their suspicions of the Le Guennec’s, the Picasso estate has not been able to provide solid evidence that the couple was involved in a more elaborate scheme with art thieves. For now, the paintings sit in the Bank of France.


What a story! Picasso produced so much. 40,000 objects. I went to a Picasso exhibit at Bellas Artes in Mexico City probably four or five years ago. The exhibit had some of his work, but it was really about him—photos of him, things like that. And I remember this photo of him in his studio. He’s standing there painting, no shirt on, canvases and unfinished works piled up all around him, grandchildren running around everywhere. And I remember thinking, all these things, these paintings, are someday going to be preserved under glass, sold for millions of dollars, kept in temperature-controlled rooms, authenticated, insured—and here they are just laying around his garage! I can still see that photo in my mind.

I’d like to say hello to a few listeners from Argentina today. Luis is an accountant from Yerba Buena and just got back from an epic vacation in the United States. Silvio lives in Tigre, a part of Buenos Aires, the capital, with his two teenagers. And then Nicolás, an architecture student, also in Buenos Aires. So hello to Luis, Silvio, and Nicolás, and thanks so much for being in the audience with us.

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Expression: Zero in on