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Did a French couple steal 271 Picasso artworks?

Did a former electrician and his wife, who kept 271 works of art by Picasso in their garage for close to 40 years, steal the whole hoard? They insist the works were gifts from the painter, but a French court will decide.

Did a French couple steal 271 Picasso artworks?
Pierre le Guennec (right) and his wife Jacqueline in court on Tuesday accused of stealing 271 Picasso works. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP

Pierre le Guennec, now in his 70s 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.

The trial in the southeastern city of Grasse, which is likely to be closely scrutinised by the art world, was expected to last three days.

Claude Picasso, who runs the Picasso Administration which authenticates the art legend's works of art, 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.

The former electrician says 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 some 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.

"They don't remember a thing, whether they received this gift in 1970, 1971, 1972," says Jean-Jacques Neuer, Claude Picasso's lawyer.

"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, said there were only a dozen works of value and that the rest was "very mediocre," insisting that Picasso never tried to sell them.

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CRIME

Suspect arrested over 2012 murder of British family in French Alps

French police on Wednesday detained a man over the 2012 killing of a British family in a remote part of the French Alps, prosecutors said, a rare development in one of France's most notorious unsolved cold cases.

French Alpine village of Lathuile
The murders took place near the small village of Lathuile in the Savoie area of France. Photo: Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP

The arrest will allow investigators to carry out searches and check the individual’s movements around the time of the killing of three members of the Al-Hilli family and a passing French cyclist on September 5th, 2012, prosecutors in Annecy said.

The individual, whose age and gender were not specified, was detained by police from the Alpine town of Chambery.

Saad al-Hilli, a 50-year-old Iraqi-born British tourist in France, was gunned down along with his 47-year-old wife Iqbal and her 74-year-old motherĀ  in a woodland car park close to the village of Chevaline in the hills above Lake Annecy.

Each was shot several times in their British-registered BMW estate car and more than two dozen used bullet casings were found near the vehicle.

The couple’s two daughters, aged seven and four at the time, survived the gruesome attack, but the older girl was shot and badly beaten.

A 45-year-old French cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, was also killed after apparently stumbling upon the scene.

Almost a decade after the killings, French and British police have so far failed to make any real progress in the case despite a massive effort involving officers on both sides of the Channel.

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