Picasso, the most stolen artist in the world

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Bizarrely, the painting appears on a list of works allegedly seized by the Philippine government in 2014, and it’s still unclear if the painting on his wall is the real thing. A month later, in France, the artist’s granddaughter, Diana Widmaier Picasso, unearths a stash of her sketches and origami birds made for her eldest daughter, Maya, Diana’s mother.


Over the years there has been a steady stream of rediscovered and salvaged Picassos, some of which have turned out to be the genuine item. Last year, the Greek police recovered Picasso woman’s headd, 1939, which had been stolen with a Mondrian during a museum robbery in 2012. In 2010, a remarkable treasure of 271 paintings, drawings and prints was unearthed in Paris, including a painting from the famous blue period by Picasso, as well as drawings, prints and other paintings – all considered authentic – dating from 1900 to 1932.

Rich celebrity during his lifetime, a Picasso auction is now an unmissable event. Last year, Sotheby’s broadcast the sale of 11 Picasso works live from the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas.

His position among the most bankable artists in the world – along with Vincent Van Gogh and Andy Warhol – remains unassailable, and his Naked Woman Lying Down, 1932, fetched $67.5m (£59.3m at the time) at auction in May. His most expensive painting, The Women of Algiers (Version 0), 1955, was purchased for the whopping sum of $179.4 million in 2015, likely by Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family.

Seated woman, blue dress (1939) Seized in July 1940, Rosenberg Collection, Paris. Estimated value: £35 million. Status: Recovered

With a record like this, it’s no surprise that Picasso is highly sought after, both on the legitimate market and on the black market.

“There are more fake Picassos than real Picassos, and there are a lot of real Picassos,” Donna Yates, associate professor of criminal law and criminology at Maastricht University, told France 24 in July this year. year.

The difficulty lies in the distinction between one and the other, a task made even more complicated by the French system of authentication of art which entrusts authority to the heirs of the artist. When Picasso died, he left no will, and his considerable estate took six years to settle among seven heirs. Prior to 2012, legally binding authentication required two of Picasso’s heirs to agree on an object’s authenticity – and the agreement was not always forthcoming. The crippling effects of the family’s internal battles were finally resolved a decade ago, when Picasso’s son Claude became the sole authenticator of his father’s works.

The problem has been addressed, but not resolved: as head of the Picasso administration, Claude Picasso receives an average of 900 authentication requests each year, which are processed alongside the licensing of reproductions and merchandise, as well than to controversial marketing decisions such as the use of the artist’s name and signature by Citroën, the French car manufacturer. The authentication process is notoriously slow, which, combined with ongoing friction between heirs and the potential for differences of opinion with other art world experts, has made room for a large number of supposed Picassos remain unconfirmed.

The situation is only heightened by the sheer scale of Picasso’s output: when he died, Picasso’s estate had a whopping 45,000 unsold works of art, listed by journalist Milton Esterow, writing in Vanity Fair in 2016:

“There were 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings, 30,000 prints, 150 sketchbooks and 3,222 ceramic works. There were a large number of illustrated books, brass and tapestries. And then there were the two castles and three other mansions. (Picasso lived and worked in about twenty places from 1900 to 1973.)”

According to Benezit Dictionary of Artists, it is estimated that Picasso produced an average of two works a day for 75 years, which means that the total number of pieces may exceed 60,000. incomprehensible, especially since no list seems to have been made of all his works in all genres”, a state of affairs which makes it perfectly conceivable that there are works yet to be discovered. This makes Picasso an ideal target for forgers.

What’s more, Picasso’s entry continues: “Throughout his very long career, he strove to do what he could not do before and…eventually it turned out that he could do it all.” . Picasso experimented with a wide range of styles and techniques, and his artistic curiosity, along with his extraordinary pace of work, created the perfect circumstances for the sudden discovery of a plausible, but fake, “lost work”.

The discovery of Maya’s origami collection illustrates the scope of the ambiguity – for although there is no suggestion that this particular discovery is anything other than bona fide, the authenticity of objects made for fun privacy strongly depends on the circumstances of their discovery and the word of the researcher.

The Weeping Woman (1937) Stolen August 1986, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. Estimated value: £88 million. Status: Recovered

The unshakeable value of a real Picasso made the artist’s works attractive targets for organized crime syndicates, which expanded into art theft in the 1960s after taking notice of the prices increasingly exorbitantly paid at auction. The latest recorded figures released by the Art Loss Register place Picasso as the world’s most stolen artist, with 1,147 works missing.

The most recent examples of recovered Picassos illustrate the continued value of art to criminal gangs: although they may attempt to ransom the owner or insurance company, they are more likely to use the art as collateral relatively portable that can be used as collateral in arms and drug deals.

The most dramatic, and often violent, art heists remain in public memory, such as the 1976 theft of 119 Picassos from the Palais des Papes in Avignon, described by Noah Charney, the author of the Musée de lost art, as “the single greatest peacetime art theft in history”.

The report in the New York Times on February 2, 1976 continued: “Last night’s theft was part of a series of art thefts. This afternoon, a precious 14th century Italian miniature was brought out of the Louvre here. A week ago, 125 Picasso prints worth $500,000 disappeared from a Paris art gallery. Plus: Police counts indicate that thefts of master paintings in France have increased from 1,500 in 1970 to almost 5,000 a year now.

The thieves of Avignon were arrested and the paintings recovered – among them The Ladies of Avignon1907, one of the most famous paintings of all time, and generally considered to represent a pivotal moment in the trajectory of 20th-century art – but Charney notes that satisfactory resolution is rare: “In as little as 1.5% of art reported thefts are items recovered and criminals brought to justice.


Among the Picassos who have disappeared, one who is feared lost forever is Pigeon with Peasan example of Analytical Cubism dating from 1911, stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris on May 20, 2010. Although the thief was later arrested, he claimed to have thrown the painting into a dumpster at the outside the museum, information received too late to act.

The pigeon with peas (1911) Stolen May 2010, Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. Estimated value: £25 million. Status: not recovered

Compared to armed robbery, art smuggling may seem relatively harmless, but it often has ties to more nefarious activities. The Picasso drawing intercepted in Ibiza recently may have been smuggled in order to avoid export restrictions, or taxes: indeed, the free ports the Conservative government is so fond of have become invaluable tools for plutocrats, who usually use them to store duty-free art. .

Portable, extremely valuable and only identifiable by an expert, art has become an increasingly convenient way for criminals to move large sums of cash undetected, slipped into a briefcase or, better still, stowed on a private yacht.

“Hemingway’s Picasso”, a podcast series which began in September 2021, tells the story of a supposed Picasso ceramic used as payment for drug trafficking by none other than Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord .

The ceramic, which has not been authenticated, was said to have been given to Hemingway by Picasso himself, eventually ending up in the hands of Steve Kough, a drug dealer who died in 2018, who claimed it was given to him by Escobar in 1989.

Whether it’s a real Picasso or not, ceramics can still prove to be a collector’s item because of the history attached to them. Meanwhile, the art market continues to thrive in an increasingly uncertain world, in which a Picasso is as safe as houses – as long as it is a Picasso.

Florence Hallett is a freelance writer and art critic

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