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The Handyman And The Stolen Picassos

October 13, 2022
Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso

Gallery owners in Paris are now on trial for trying to cover up their purchase of over 500 drawings by Pablo Picasso that a handyman stole.

This trial has been over a decade in the making. Originally, a criminal complaint was filed in 2011 by Catherine Hutin, Pablo Picasso’s stepdaughter, and Sylvie Baltazart-Eon, daughter of art dealer Aimé Maeght. In late 2011, the Boulakia Gallery in Paris submitted several drawings to the Picasso Administration for authentication. Then, the estate realized that some of the drawings belonged to Picasso’s wife Jacqueline, who then passed them on to her daughter Catherine. When notified, Catherine took stock of her collection and realized that around three hundred fifty drawings were missing, valued at about €12 million. Around this time, Sylvie Baltazart-Eon discovered over one hundred etchings and lithographs by twentieth-century masters like Francis Bacon, Alexander Calder, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró, and Alberto Giacometti were missing from her own home. Authorities soon learned that the same person likely stole these works.

Hutin and Baltazart-Eon were neighbors in the south of Paris and had employed the same handyman to work on their houses, a man named Frédéric Munchenbach. After his arrest in January 2013, Munchenbach confessed that he used the house keys given to him to steal the drawings to pay off gambling debts. He also admitted that he mainly sold the works to an Italian named Antonio Celano for about €150,000. When arrested, Celano confessed to police that he sold these drawings to the Belle et Belle Gallery in Paris, owned by Anne Pfeffer.

Many of the works described as stolen were found by police in Pfeffer’s gallery and home, most of which were not properly registered. Some of the inscriptions or edition numbers on the prints were altered, while other drawings that were once part of a single piece of paper were found cut and divided to make several works. The seven-year investigation revealed some shady dealings at the Belle et Belle Gallery, including transactions made in cash, if they were included in the ledger at all. The gallery even has ties to an offshore company with an anonymous Swiss bank account, leading some to question whether Pfeffer was involved with money laundering.

Finally, in 2020, Pfeffer, her husband, her daughter, and Antonio Celano were charged with concealment. All have denied that they were aware of the works’ provenance. Celano even claimed he was unaware that the pieces were by Picasso, which is difficult to believe given every one of them bears Picasso’s signature. Additionally, Pfeffer’s husband, a physician, attempted to bribe one of his own patients with a Valium prescription in exchange for testifying in his favor; you know, the type of thing innocent people do. Munchenbach has not been charged mainly because of the statute of limitations. The brief trial lasted from October 5th to October 7th, with a final verdict expected next month. Confusingly, despite investigators’ comments on the Pfeffers’ “particular treachery” both in their crimes and during the trial, prosecutors asked for a suspended sentence for both of them.

So far, authorities recovered only fifty-six works from the Belle et Belle Gallery and at the Pfeffers’ home. Others have been returned from collectors, but hundreds remain missing.