GRASSE, France - A former electrician and his wife who kept 271 works of art by Picasso in their garage for close to 40 years went on trial in France on Tuesday accused of possessing stolen goods.
Pierre Le Guennec, now 75 and retired, says the world-famous artist and his wife Jacqueline gave him the oil canvases, drawings and Cubist collages when he was doing work on the last property they lived in before Picasso died in 1973.
But some of the artist's heirs, including his son Claude, suspect otherwise and filed a complaint against the couple, who were charged in 2011.
"Picasso had total confidence in me. Maybe it was my discretion," Le Guennec told the court in the southeastern city of Grasse at the start of a three-day trial which is likely to be closely scrutinised by the art world.
"Monsieur and Madame called me 'little cousin'." The former electrician said that when he was working on Picasso's home in Mougins, an upmarket town in the hills outside Cannes on the French Riviera, the artist often invited him to have eat cake and drink coffee.
"We talked about everything and nothing," he told AFP in 2010.
"One evening when I left work, Madame gave me a small packet and said 'this is for you'," he said.
"When I came home, I saw sketches, pencil drawings. I didn't know anything about all this.
"If Madame had given me a painting, then that would have been weird." He put the present in his garage, but when he went to Paris in 2010 to get the works authenticated at the Picasso Administration, the artist's heirs filed an official complaint.
'Mediocre' or hugely valuable?
Claude Picasso, who runs the Picasso Administration, is one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Others include Paloma, Claude's sister, another child Maya, two grandchildren and Catherine Hutin-Blay, the daughter of Picasso's last wife Jacqueline.
Under the charge of possessing stolen goods, the lawyers do not have to demonstrate who the alleged thief was but do have to prove that the couple knew the works of art came from a fraudulent origin.
"They don't remember a thing, whether they received this gift in 1970, 1971, 1972," Jean-Jacques Neuer, Claude Picasso's lawyer, said before the trial opened.
"If someone gives you 271 Picasso works, you remember that." The works were all created between 1900 and 1932.
"You would have to imagine Picasso keeping them for 70 years and all of a sudden wanting to give them away." They are not signed either, and Neuer said the artist would always autograph his work - whether he gave it away or sold it.
The couple's lawyer Charles-Etienne Gudin, meanwhile, has said there were only a dozen works of value and that the rest was "very mediocre," insisting that Picasso never tried to sell them.
He added that it would have been extremely difficult for anyone to steal from Picasso, as the artist had "an amazing memory" and his property was heavily protected like a "fortress."