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A sketch worth hundreds of thousands, a children’s book and a ‘missing’ masterpiece... In the past three months, three unique artworks by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso have been found, in strange and unexpected circumstances. Is this a coincidence or not?
When the President of the Philippines, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, won a landslide victory in May, 2022, he went to visit the home of his mother Imelda, former first lady and wife of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
In a video showing mother congratulating son, one detail in Imelda’s opulent home stood out. On the wall, was a distinctive painting of an abstract nude rendered in blues and greens, on a red and orange bed. It was unmistakably Pablo Picasso’s “Femme Couchée VI”.
The painting was one of more than 200 that Imelda and Marcos senior acquired while the dictator was in power, using money siphoned from the Philippines to Switzerland. By the time he was deposed in 1986, he had plundered as much as $10 billion.
In 2014, “Femme Couchée VI” was targeted for seizure by anti-corruption authorities in the Philippines trying to recover some of those missing billions, but they failed to confiscate it and the work was declared “missing”. Since it was sighted in Imelda’s living room, questions have swirled over whether she owns the authentic version of the painting or a fake, or possibly both.
“It’s an astonishing story, for quite a few reasons,” Ruth Millington, art historian and author of “Muse”. “A criminologist might take decades or hundreds of years to track down a painting, but this one has been spotted online.”
As Picasso’s paintings of his muses are his most highly valued works, the real “Femme Couchée VI” is likely to be worth tens of millions of dollars. “It’s a bold and brazen move from the family if it is the real deal to show it on the walls behind her,” Millington adds. “But, if it's a replica, then it's the ultimate attempt to troll the authorities who are searching for the real painting.”
“An important discovery”
One month after Bongbong Marco’s victory in the Philippines, a second artwork by the Spanish artist was unexpectedly found, this time by his granddaughter Diana Widmaier-Ruiz-Picasso in France.
Searching through family storage in June, 2022, she came across a collection of origami birds and sketchbooks filled with colourful images of animals, clowns and acrobats by the artist.
When she showed the books to her mother – Picasso’s eldest daughter Maya Ruiz-Picasso – memories came flooding back. The artist had used the sketches to teach his daughter, now aged 86, to draw when she was a child. On some pages, her notes and sketches appeared alongside those of her father. Next to one circus scene she wrote the number “10” indicating her approval.
“It’s an incredibly important discovery,” Millington says. “We all know that Picasso was intrigued by children's imagination. This is showing hard proof of that in the form of the sketchbook. It also shows that dialogue between him and his daughter bringing that personal element into it.”
Weeks later, on July 5, 2022, yet another artwork by the master of Cubism unexpectedly came to light.
After being tipped off by customs officials, authorities at Ibiza airport in Spain searched through the luggage of a passenger arriving from Switzerland and found drawing, believed to be Picasso’s “Trois Personnages”, hidden in his bags.
Upon discovery of the work, the passenger claimed it was a copy and showed authorities an invoice worth approximately $1,560. But a further search of his bags unearthed a second invoice, from an art gallery in Zurich. The sketch, believed to be authentic, is valued at more than $460,000.
A prolific artist
Picasso was a prolific creator, estimated to have made around 50,000 artworks during his lifetime, compared to around 20,000 from Andy Warhol and 900 paintings from Van Gough. And these are just the authentic versions. “There's more fake Picasso's than real Picasso's, and there's a lot of real Picasso's,” says Dr Donna Yates, associate professor of criminal law and criminology at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands.
Currently, demand for works by the Spanish master is booming. “Since the pandemic, people are putting their money into artwork and trying to sell them on in a way that nobody quite expected,” Millington says. Insecurity in other markets is making art seem like a safe bet, “and a solid investment is something by a great master, like Picasso".
In the case of works such “Femme Couchée VI”, infamy and intrigue only increase the value. Millington says, “even the fake now might be worth quite a lot because of the story around it".
In a market that is full of Picasso’s – real and fake – where those works are in high demand, what to make of three unexpectedly coming to light in such different circumstances, in such a short space of time?
While the stories may be unique, they are not entirely unexpected. “It’s almost weirdly predictable,” says Yates. “It seems strange that we've got three kinds of Picasso things happening, but he produced a lot of work so there's a lot of Picasso artwork out there. At the same time, a lot of people target his work in a number of ways because he is very famous and his works are desirable.”
'The Wild West'
The art market is worth an estimated $65.1 billion globally, and the art crime market is also highly valuable. There are no global figures for the cost of art crime, but in the US alone the FBI’s art crime team has recovered more than 15,000 items valued at over $800 million since 2004.
According to Yates, a single case of a potential fake Picasso and another of illegal smuggling occurring within three months of each other are “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the true scale of art crimes occurring globally.
The smuggling incident in Ibiza is perhaps the least surprising of the three recent Picasso discoveries. “People think that artwork is always shipped around in well-packaged crates by professional art handlers, but often it is moved around in hand luggage,” Millington says.
Not only does this avoid costs such as taxes and the permissions needed to move some works of value, but the chances of getting caught are slim. “Often the least sophisticated forms of smuggling are the most successful,” says Yates. “Another one of the most common ways to smuggle things is through the post.”
The process of how valuable artworks fall into the hands of smugglers is relatively straightforward. Essentially works are sold to the highest bidder. “And frankly, more and more private individuals have much more money than museums do to buy these pieces,” says Yates. Once an individual owns an artwork, there is little to stop them transporting it as they please or selling it on to whom they wish.
Perhaps the most unique of the three discoveries are the sketchbooks and origami found in France. But although there is no hint of foul play, even this discovery may not as straightforward as it seems.
Artifacts that can shed new light on the creative process of a great artist are extremely rare, and in this case the timing is exceptionally opportune.
In April 2022, the Picasso Museum in Paris launched a nine-month exhibition entitled “Maya Ruiz-Picasso, Daughter of Pablo” dedicated to Picasso’s relationship with his eldest daughter. Two months in, a surprise discovery of new artifacts is sure to help promotion efforts, especially as the sketchbooks and birds are to be added to the items on display.
Nonetheless, Millington is pleased that they will be displayed in a museum, “where there's some reflection on Picasso and his interest in children's imagination.”
“I think they would do extremely well on the art market, but the market is so unregulated,” she says. “It’s like the Wild West.”