More than 400 of Pablo Picasso's sketches and watercolors have gone missing, the victim is Catherine Hutin-Blay— daughter of Pablo Picasso's second wife—and the prime suspect is a handyman named Freddy Munchenbach. This, folks, is your highbrow art crime of the day.
Art heists of late have been sort of demure compared to the Hutin-Blay scheme. Take the casual spiriting away of a $500,000 Dalí on the Upper East Side last June or the $250,000 Rembrandt gone missing from a California hotel in 2011. Sure, each one nabbed a piece more expensive than some homes, but neither heist involved a relative of the artist. Nor did the thieves steal 400 pieces of art from the greatest painter of the 20th century.
Hutin-Blay, according to The Age, "inherited a vast collection of Picasso's work on the death of her mother in 1986 and still owns the Chateau de Vauvenargues near Aix-en- Provence in the south of France," where Picasso and his second wife, Hutin-Blay's mother, are buried. But her collection is down some 400 pieces because of thefts she believes occurred between 2005 and 2007, and reported in 2011 after she was alerted that a couple of Picasso originals had gone up for auction.
"I went to the filing cabinet to check that the artworks were still there and they were no longer there," Hutin-Blay told Le Parisien. That statement is amazing in itself because the idea of stuffing Picasso watercolors and sketches in a regular old filing cabinet is something 99.99 percent of the rest of the world will never even have the chance of contemplating, let alone actually doing. "That is what triggered everything," she added.
"In the beginning I suspected everyone, until I got to [the handyman]," Ms Hutin-Blay told Le Parisien, referring to, yes, the aforementioned Freddy Munchenbach. Munchenbach, according to the Huffington Post, worked for both Hutin-Blay and Sylvie Baltazart-Eon, the daughter of Picasso's art dealer, who also noticed some pieces stolen. "He worked for Sylvie when we were neighbours. I never gave (him) a spare key — I didn't trust him, but he worked as a gardener at the house and took advantage of this by getting a key cut for himself," Hutin-Blay added.
The pieces that were "stolen include sketches, watercolours and sanguines — a red earth technique similar to charcoal favoured by Picasso," The Age reports. But it turns out they're only valued somewhere between 1 million-2 million euros collectively (taking the high end figure, that's about 5,000 euros a piece or $6,555.50) — a conservative estimate that betrays the stratospheric cost we usually associate with Picasso.
Another factor working against the thief is, well, the basic fact that art pieces are hard to sell. As The Atlantic's Jordan Weissman found out last October, getting high prices for stolen art pieces is pretty much impossible. "[W]henever you talk about these paintings, it's a matter of authenticity and provenance and legal title. And if you don't have one of those three things, you don't have value," Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI's art crime team told Weissman. "So unless you're stealing it just to admire, their attempts to sell it are going to end in failure," he added. Of course, you could always just buy a print. Very few people will know the difference — and you won't go to prison.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.