PARIS -- Picasso called him Nounours, a French term for ‘teddy bear.’ This former taxi driver was the chauffeur, aide and confidant of the Spanish master during the last years of his life, from 1966 to 1973, which he spent on the Côte d’Azur in southern France. Photos bear witness to their closeness: in one, Picasso and Nounours are seated at a table on the terrace of the villa at Mougins; in another they are in the stands in Arles to see a bullfight. Nounours’ wife, Jacqueline, often appears in the photos as well.

The artist used to send the couple postcards. He even gave them some works of art – hundreds, in fact, especially drawings. Seven carry Picasso’s signature. The rest don’t, which is why suspicions have arisen. Did Nounours and his wife – Maurice and Jacqueline Bresnu – help themselves to Picasso’s treasures? The art world has been asking itself this question for a long time, painting the Bresnu couple as “fiendish.” But the truth may never be discovered. Maurice died in 1991. Jacqueline passed away in 2009, taking their secrets to the grave. The couple had no children.

Even in death, however, the couple continues to arouse suspicions – particularly in the wake of a high-profile discovery over a year ago that links back to the case. It was in late 2010 that retired electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle made it known that they were in possession of no fewer than 271 previously unseen Picassos. The couple had stored the works in their garage in Mouans-Sartoux, near Cannes, for close to 40 years.

The works included large numbers of drawings and nine cubist collages with a total value of nearly 80 million euros. This enormous Picasso collection came to light because the Le Guennecs wanted to authenticate their works with the Picasso Administration, which manages the artist’s estate.

Pierre Le Guennec swears that Picasso offered him the pieces as a gift after he carried out a number of electrical repairs at the artist’s houses between 1971 and 1973. Claude Picasso, son of the artist, is convinced that the works of art were stolen, and has referred the matter to the authorities. In May 2011, the Le Guennecs were indicted. All the artwork has been seized pending a court verdict.

But in the meantime, the French justice system has extended its inquiries to the Bresnu collection as well. Although the Bresnus are now both deceased,  and their collection has already been sold, investigators hope that determining how they obtained their collection of Picasso’s work could shed light on Pierre Le Guennec’s role in the affair. Indeed, new evidence suggests the two collections are more closely linked than previously assumed.

Skeleton in the closet

Pierre Le Guennec repeatedly told police that he began working for Picasso after responding to a classified advertisement. But the electrician failed to mention that he was in fact the first cousin of Jacqueline Bresnu, and also one of the witnesses at her wedding. It wasn’t until a genealogist was appointed by a legal team to find Maurice and Jacqueline Bresnu’s legal heirs that this skeleton in the closet was unearthed. “Why did Mr. Le Guennec keep this crucial fact hidden?” asks Jean-Jacques Neuer, a lawyer for the Picasso Administration.

Neuer suspects Le Guennec’s silence on this matter may be due to a rather incriminating statement two people close to the Bresnus made on May 17, 2011 to the Office Centrale de Lutte Contre le Trafic des Biens Culturels, which deals with the theft of items of historic or artistic value. The two people involved are Bernard and Dominique Lambert. He is a retired fruit and vegetable seller in the northern suburbs of Paris. His wife is a cleaner. Dominique is none other than the niece of Maurice Bresnu.

Dominique revealed something her uncle once told her: it was he who got Pierre Le Guennec into Picasso’s house.

Madame Lambert went even further. “I can tell you quite honestly here and now that the works of art in my uncle’s possession were stolen by him when he worked for Pablo Picasso.” Dominique and her husband heard the Bresnu couple admit it several times. “Oh sure, that was stolen,” Dominique remembers Jacqueline Bresnu saying on several occasions.

The Lamberts’ discovery

The Lamberts found out about the Bresnus’ shady activities at the start of the 1980s. The Lamberts were living at the time in the Parisian suburb of Carrières-sur-Seine but frequently visited the Bresnus at their house in Sérignac, a village in southwest France. The Bresnus had retired to the house in 1976, three years after the death of Picasso. During one of their visits, the Lamberts heard the Bresnus complain about how Jacqueline’s mother had just gone to the local police to report that Maurice had stolen the Picassos. “The police officers left without even coming into the house,” said Bernard Lambert. “Jacqueline made some comment like: ‘That was close!’”

Maurice Bresnu would often use terms like “swipe,” when talking with Bernard Lambert about the thefts. “He never told me how he had stolen the works, but he always maintained that he never took anything from Picasso while he was alive,” Lambert said. The thefts supposedly took place at Picasso’s villa in Mougins during the years following the painter’s death. “[Maurice] was completely at home there, so he could help himself at his leisure.”

One day, Maurice Bresnu invited Bernard Lambert to go up to the attic where the treasure trove was hidden. Lambert later described the experience: “There was just the two of us and he showed me everything he had, sketchbooks, folders and files that contained loads of drawings. I remember the drawings in the spiral bound sketchbooks… I don’t know how many pieces there were, but at least 100, maybe 200.”

Finding Picasso buyers

Maurice Bresnu showed Bernard Lambert the secret stash for a particular reason, but did not explain why until after the death of Picasso’s wife, Jacqueline Roque, in 1986. “Maurice phoned me straight away. He asked me to find potential buyers for the Picassos that he had,” Bernard told police.

As a fruit and vegetable seller, Bernard was not particularly well placed to seek out Picasso buyers. He decided, therefore, to discuss the matter with one of his clients, Michel Messager, an antiques dealer at the flea market in Saint-Ouen on the outskirts of Paris. Messager knew a well-established art dealer, Jean Chauvelin, who accepted the job of reselling the majority of Bresnu’s Picassos. Bernard Lambert commented: “It started just like that. I used my holidays to take the paintings up to Paris and then take the money back to Maurice.”

Bresnu knew that Picasso made a habit of signing his works before passing them on to art dealers or offering them as gifts. So according to Dominique Lambert, Bresnu forged Picasso’s signature on the unsigned works: “Whenever he was on the telephone and doodling on a piece of paper next to him, he used to imitate Picasso’s signature. It was one of my uncle’s quirks.”

Bernard Lambert provided the police with details of the transactions: “Maurice generally gave me 10% of the selling price. Each drawing sold for about 40,000 francs (about 6,000 euros). But in 1989, Maurice started to complain about the low selling price. He told me: “Your little Parisian friends are paying me peanuts.” After Maurice’s death in 1991, his widow Jacqueline allegedly made Bernard Lambert a further payment following a large sale of paintings. “I was supposed to earn 1.6 million francs (nearly 250,000 euros). In the end, I earned about 1.2 million (180,000 euros)… Jacqueline Bresnu would make a payment in cash every week into a safety deposit box in my name at the bank in Villeneuve-sur-Lot.”

Why now?

So why have Dominique and Bernard Lambert decided to speak out now? “I was scared of the legal repercussions,” said Bernard, adding that the police already knew much of the history. Furthermore, the Lamberts don’t like the Bresnus. Dominique Lambert explains their reasons: in 1997, she and her husband moved in with Jacqueline Bresnu, who was suffering from loneliness. But the house-share didn’t work. “It was unlivable.”

Another person close to the Bresnu couple has also spoken to the police. Domingo, as he is known, worked for the Bresnus between 1988 and 1996. Last June he told Le Parisien newspaper that “almost all the Picasso works that the Bresnus had were stolen. In private, they never hid the thefts.” The Picasso Administration confirms that it has “further details proving that Mr. Bresnu was a thief.” What details? “We are saving that information for the police.”

It is difficult to determine exactly how many works the Bresnus had, nor their quality. More than 250 items – many drawings, but also gouache, pastels, ceramics, sketchbooks – have been located. Others have not yet been found, or have been classified as “under suspicion” by the Picasso Administration, which is investigating “more than 500 pieces.”

How much would the whole collection be worth? Twenty million euros? Thirty million? Fifty million? It’s impossible to say for sure. What is clear, however, is that the value of the “Nounours collection” has increased significantly since the 1990s. “The most expensive items are also the hardest ones to find,” adds an insider.

The pieces were sold individually, in France and abroad. Some of the drawings occasionally pop up at auction. Others have turned up in museums. Bernard Lambert said he saw “two or three quite large paintings” in the attic, which is surprising since no canvas linked to the Bresnus has appeared on the market. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible: the Picasso Administration has discovered in a sales catalogue a previously unseen sculpture believed to come from the Nounours collection.

Fallout for the Picasso family

The Bresnu affair has not only provoked investigations into the potential thefts, it has also shed new light on the way Picasso’s works have been marketed. In doing so, some fundamental disagreements among Picasso’s heirs have been exposed. These divisions emerged for the first time in 1989 when 44 previously unseen drawings from Picasso’s later years were unveiled at the Krugier gallery in Geneva. The seller was anonymous. The drawings had been awarded an authentication certificate signed by Marina Picasso, the artist’s granddaughter. But, just after the sale was completed, Claude Picasso, son of the painter, informed the gallery and the buyers that he believed the works to be fake. This dramatic disagreement had serious consequences, not least the collapse of the Picasso committee which was, at the time, in charge of defending the rights of the painter.

The Krugier gallery responded to Claude’s accusations by revealing Bresnu as the anonymous seller of the Picassos. The dealers involved, as well as the intermediaries working on behalf of Maurice Bresnu, agreed to submit the drawings to Maya Picasso, the artist’s daughter, whose talent for recognizing her father’s work is well-respected. Unlike her brother, she deemed the paintings to be genuine – but thought the signatures were fake. “The drawings are fabulous, but the signatures, what a mess!” she told Le Monde. How can she be sure? “I’ve got an eye for it,” she said. “Whenever we gave 30 works to Picasso to sign, the signature always changed a little. On Bresnu’s works, it was always identical, as if it were a stamp!”

Maya Picasso asked for the signatures to be removed. On each piece of art, dealers replaced the signatures with an embossed stamp that reads: “M. and J. Bresnu. Collection Nounours.” Most importantly, the works of art were awarded their certificates of authenticity.

Maya Picasso, now 76, does not regret awarding these certificates: “Of course not, the drawings are good!” So did Maurice Bresnu steal from her father? “I wasn’t there! I’m not psychic!” she said. But we sense that she has some doubts: “Something strange definitely went on… Picasso always signed and dedicated his gifts. Why was that not the case here? I met Maurice Bresnu twice… He never told me who added the signatures.”

Now that both of the Brenus have passed on, the true origins of their collection may never be confirmed – despite the incriminating evidence of the Lamberts. But there are still things to learn from the ongoing investigation of the Le Guennecs. What exactly was their role in the affair? There’s also the still unanswered question of just how much their collection of Picasso works is worth.

Read more from Le Monde in French.

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