Finding Lost Art: Picasso Treasure Trove 'Came Out of Nowhere'

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The discovery of what is believed to be 271 works of art by Pablo Picasso has dropped jaws in the art world, where people had no idea such a trove was out there.

Now the race is on not only to figure out exactly where the art came from, but where it goes now.

"These came out of nowhere," said Christopher Marinello, executive director and general counsel for the London-based Art Loss Register, which maintains the largest international database of lost and stolen works of art.

"We think that if these were to be placed in the marketplace today, given what we've seen recently, even in a downturned market," Marinello said, "these could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, especially as a group."

But whether the pieces will ever make it to the open market remains to be seen.

Soon after Pierre Le Guennec, a retired French electrician, and his wife showed some of the 271 pieces to Picasso's son, Claude Picasso, in September, The Associated Press reported, the late artist's estate, the Picasso Administration, filed suit.

Though Le Guennec and his wife claim the Picassos were given to them by the artist himself after Le Guennec did work for him, authorities in France are now investigating how Le Guennec and his wife came to own so many of the prized works.

Marinello said the Art Loss Register has the same question.

"Two hundred and seventy-one is a fairly sizeable body of work to be a gift," Marinello said. "It does look a little suspicious coming from someone who installed burglar alarms in a couple of Picasso properties."

Though the Art Loss Register keeps tabs on some 900 Picassos -- and 30 fakes -- Marinello said there is no way to tell how many more may be out there.

According to the ALR database, there are currently 72 missing Picassos and another 702 that have been reported stolen. According to an ALR historian, most of the stolen Picassos registered with them are out of the United States.

Picassos are considered high-profile targets, according to ALR, because thieves don't account for registries like ALR and don't realize they can't easily sell the stolen art without alerting watchdogs like the ALR.

Marinello could not confirm or deny whether ALR was involved with France's investigation into the Le Guenneces, but noted cryptically that its president was in Paris today.

Fate of 271 Picassos Rests With French Court

A decision on the fate of the 271 Picasso pieces won't be a quick one, Marinello warned.

If the Picasso estate prevails in court, "they will likely retain the most important works and quietly/privately sell what they don't want," he wrote in an e-mail. "If [the] electrician prevails, look for big private sales and more people going into the burglar alarm installation business."

The items are currently being held by police following a raid last month, according to the AP.

Danielle Le Guennec told The Associated Press in a phone interview that she and her husband kept the pieces in a trunk in the garage of their home on the French Riviera. She insisted they were not thieves and that they contacted the Picasso Administration only to help verify their authenticity.

"He's put a knife in our back, taken us to court and accused us of theft," she told the AP. "He'll have to prove it."

Despite the years of distance between the creation of the art and present day -- even centuries in the case of a Michelangelo or Leonardo -- Marinello said he expects to see more and more lost works of art turning up thanks to advances in technology that can verify authenticity in a way that's never been possible before.

"They're looking at fingerprints now on pieces or brush strokes or whether there's hair with the artist's DNA in the paint," he said, likening the laboratories that do that kind of work to "CSI for art."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.