Art market

Plot thickens in alleged Picasso theft case

In addition to two portraits of Jacqueline Picasso, more than 60 other works are believed to have gone missing from a storage facility in Paris suburb

The case of the alleged theft from the collection of Catherine Hutin-Blay, Jacqueline Picasso’s daughter, is deepening every day. In addition to two portraits by Picasso of Hutin-Blay’s mother, it now emerges that more than 60 works may in fact have gone missing from her storage facility in the northern Paris suburb of Gennevilliers.

On 13 March, Hutin-Blay filed a complaint with police for the theft of two portraits of her mother, sold by the Swiss businessman Luc Bouvier to the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. An inquiry was launched on 23 March into alleged theft, fraud and possession of stolen goods.

Paris’s organised crime squad subsequently arrested two of Bouvier’s partners last week: Olivier Thomas, who owns the Gennevilliers storage company Art Transit, and Jean-Marc Peretti.

Thomas and Peretti were both released after two days in police custody. Both are now awaiting a summons from the investigating magistrate. Peretti, who has always maintained he was unaware of Bouvier’s business with Rybolovlev, has not responded to requests for comment. Thomas and Bouvier’s lawyers both said they “could not make any comments about a procedure they know nothing about”, as no one has been charged.

Rybolovlev’s representatives say they recently met Hutin-Blay to check the provenance of 58 drawings he had also purchased from Bouvier. Hutin-Blay believes they were removed from three sketchbooks that were also in storage. Rybolovlev’s lawyer, Tetiana Bersheda, has provided details of all works by Picasso in his collection to French police. Hutin-Blay’s attorney, Anne-Sophie Nardon, has now asked the judge to extend the scope of the investigation.

Bersheda says that the 60 works were bought from Luc Bouvier. Rybolovlev paid €27m for the two portraits, dated 1957, and €9m for the 58 drawings. Bouvier confirmed that he sold the portraits but denies “having any suspicion that they could have been stolen”.

Representatives of Rybolovlev’s company, Accent Delight, told The Art Newspaper the company would “hold the two portraits of Jacqueline Picasso acquired from Bouvier at the disposal of the judicial authorities”. The company, which is a plaintiff in the inquiry launched in Paris, says it intends “to give [the works] back to their owner, if they are identified as those having been stolen in her storage at Art Transit in Gennevilliers”.

Paris Police made the connection between Hutin-Blay’s complaint for theft in Paris and Rybolovlev’s one for fraud in Monaco. Rybolovlev has accused Bouvier of overcharging him for works of art. The Russian collector bought around 40 paintings for almost $2bn over ten years from the Swiss businessman. Bouvier claims he acted as a dealer, free to make a profit. Bouvier is now supposed to provide the judge in Monaco with documents of his purchases, including the two portraits of Jacqueline Picasso.

All dated 1955, the drawings are studies of heads, nudes, and also sketches for the Femmes d’Alger, the composition that recently sold in New York for the record auction price of $179m. According to police testimony, further paintings might also be missing from the storage facility.

Insisting that he is unaware of the details, Luc Bouvier’s lawyer, Luc Brossollet, says: “In any case, [it is] absurd that he could have compromised his relationship with such an important client with works of dubious origin, made by Picasso, when he knew that the collection was supposed to be exhibited. It makes no sense.”

When he was under custody, Olivier Thomas told police Hutin-Blay must be confused. But she maintains she never considered selling any portraits of her mother. “One thing is for sure,” says Hutin-Blay's lawyer Anne-Sophie Nardon, “this case is extremely serious and much bigger that we first thought.”