Retired electrician has 271 undocumented Picassos

Painting of a handRetired electrician Pierre Le Guennec showed up at the Picasso Administration — the agency that administers his estate — on September 9 carrying a suitcase full of 175 previously unknown works by Pablo Picasso. Le Guennec claimed the artist’s last wife, Jacqueline, gave them to him as gifts after he installed alarm systems in several of Picasso’s houses, and that he had another 100 or so in a trunk in his garage. He had sent the PA pictures of some of the works in January, but they weren’t high enough quality for the experts to authenticate, so he brought them in for a live examination.

Drawing of a horseClaude Picasso, Pablo’s son and head of the Picasso Administration, didn’t believe him. At first he thought they were fakes. They aren’t signed or dated, but when the experts examined the pieces closely they found many of them were numbered using a secret system Picasso used and the collection displayed such an adept use of a variety of techniques to make forgery highly improbable if not impossible. So Claude grudgingly accepted that the works were authentic. He didn’t buy the gift story at all, though, and promptly filed suit for illegal receipt of the works.

Last month, French police raided the Le Guennec’s home and confiscated the trove. They arrested Pierre but released him shortly thereafter. They’re keeping the collection while they investigate the allegations.

“This was a gift,” Danielle Le Guennec told The Associated Press by phone from their home in the town of Mouans-Sartoux, near the tourist Riviera hotspot of Antibes. “We aren’t thieves. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

She said the couple decided to come forward with the works this year because they were getting on in years, and “didn’t want to leave any headaches to our children” with their own estate. Her husband had undergone a cancer treatment operation in March, she said.

The works, which were kept in a trunk, didn’t appear to be much to her untrained eye, she said: “But even if this was a little jot of the pencil, it did come from the master.”

“These aren’t tableaus like the ones sold in America.”

Claude Picasso, quoted in Liberation, noted that his father was known for his generosity – but that he always dedicated, dated and signed his gifts, as he knew that some recipients might try to sell the works one day.

“To give away such a large quantity, that’s unheard-of. It doesn’t hold water,” Claude Picasso was quoted in Liberation as saying. “This was part of his life.”

Olga AccoudeeClaude says his father was a bit of a hoarder. He kept everything from subway tickets to bits of string. The notion that Pablo Picasso would have given away such a huge number of his works is utterly alien to his established patterns of behavior.

Papier colle pipe et bouteille collageThe works were from his early, most prolific period, between 1900 and 1932. Among them are drawings, lithographs, portraits — including of his first wife, Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova — watercolors, sketches and models for some of his most famous works, a painting from his Blue Period, and 9 collages that were described by critics in 1912 as “painted proverbs” but were thought to have been lost when Picasso’s studio was flooded.

The estimated market value of this hoard according to the Picasso Administration is around $79 million. The Le Guennecs claim they didn’t want to sell them, just have them authenticated.

Nu AssisDrawing on a notebookDrawing on another notebookNature Morte Verre collage

Yale to return Inca artifacts for real this time. Maybe.

Inca gold pendant retrieved by Hiram Bingham at Machu PicchuYale University and Peru signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday stipulating that Yale will return the artifacts removed from Machu Picchu by Yale professor Hiram Bingham III’s expedition between 1911 and 1915. All of the artifacts will go back by December 31, 2012, with the items in good enough condition for museum display to be returned in time for the centennial of Bingham’s finds in July 2011. The objects are to be housed at the University of San Antonio Abad in Cuzco and will be available to Yale scholars to study in collaboration with local experts.

The memorandum states that the center will be built with financial support from the Peruvian government. [University President Richard] Levin said Yale will work with the university in Cusco to establish a museum and research center dedicated to the artifacts, adding that details of the deal to found the center are still under negotiation.

Still, Levin said that the artifacts may return to Yale for short exhibitions of up to two years, as allowed under Peruvian law.

“We will be able to ensure that the objects will be well taken care of and will be accessible to scholars,” Levin said, adding that these are “conditions that were very important to us.”

The memorandum has yet to be formalized, however, and it’s not the first time Yale and Peru have gotten this far only to have it go up in smoke. The last time was in 2007, when after months of negotiations an agreement was reached that acknowledged Peru’s title to the artifacts but granted Yale rights to study and display some of the pieces in New Haven for up to 99 years. That deal fell through in 2008, followed by Peru filing suit against the university in a Connecticut federal court. Peru turned up the heat even further recently, taking to the streets in mass protests, threatening to press criminal charges and formally requesting that the White House intervene in the dispute.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even came down on Peru’s side this June, an interesting illustration of the changing attitude towards repatriation issues given that Hiram Bingham III was himself a Senator from Connecticut from 1924 to 1933.

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu in 1911Bingham is often described as having rediscovered Machu Picchu in his 1911 expedition, although really the locals had never lost it and even foreigners like missionaries and adventurers/looters knew about it decades before Bingham made his way there. He returned in 1912 and spent the next 3 years collecting thousands of artifacts like jewelry, ceramics and even human remains, all of which he brought back to Yale.

Peru claims the artifacts number over 40,000, but Yale says they only have 5,500, 330 of them museum quality. Peru says they were only loaned; Yale says all the loaned objects were returned in the 20s and the artifacts they still have they own legally. This was the crux of the dispute. If the memorandum of understanding gets the official stamp of approval, Peru’s ownership will be uncontested. We’ll see if new issues crop up over the number of artifacts.

Mysterious medieval tunnel found at Lincoln Castle

Medieval tunnel uncovered under Lincoln CastleArchaeologists excavating the ground level of the bailey at the center of Lincoln Castle have uncovered a previously unknown tunnel connecting to a circular structure. The dig is in preparation for the future construction of a wheelchair-accessible elevator that would bring visitors up to the castle walls.

The find is exciting not just because it might well have been originally constructed as a secret passageway, which is inherently awesome, but because it’s the only medieval structure surviving inside the castle bailey. The newly-discovered structure has been provisionally dated to the 12th century, which makes it one of the first stone buildings in the castle.

Lincoln Castle was built by William the Conqueror just 2 years after the conquest to consolidate his power. In 1068 it was just a wooden keep, but it was later replaced by a stone one. The castle has been built on and over repeatedly since then, so finding original stone structures is a major coup.

County archaeologist Beryl Lott described it as an exciting and unique discovery.

She said: “There are no other known surviving remains of medieval structures within the castle bailey.

“These excavations have discovered the remains of a substantial stone building with a circular interior, possibly the remains of a stairwell or room below the current ground level of the castle bailey.

“The room is accessed by a doorway, which leads into a tunnel in the direction of the central bailey area.”

Lincoln Castle saw a lot of exciting action in the 12th century, most famously the battle between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in 1141. If you’ve read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, watched the sadly inferior TV series based thereon, or read the Cadfael book Dead Man’s Ransom, the First Battle of Lincoln featured prominently.

Stephen besieged Lincoln Castle where Matilda was holed up, but just when it looked like she was done for, her half-brother Robert of Gloucester charged in like the cavalry and won the day. Stephen was captured and Matilda garnered herself a short-lived spell — from February to June — on the throne of England. Who knows but Matilda might have taken cover in that passageway before her half-brother’s forces came to save her bacon.

The Bastille: Living hell and 5-star hotel

1789 drawing of "L'homme au Masque de Fer," the Man in the Iron MaskA new exhibit at the Arsenal Library branch of the French National Library called “La Bastille, or a Living Hell” is putting on display archives and artifacts of life inside the Bastille, fortress, prison and symbol of royal injustice whose destruction launched a revolution. The prison archives were thrown into ditches by the Parisians who stormed the Bastille on the 14th of July 1789. Nine years passed before the administrator of the Arsenal Library was able to get his hands on them, and there they remained generating surprisingly little interest for the next couple hundred years.

This exhibit is the first time the archives and artifacts have been gathered together for a comprehensive look at how prisoners in the Bastille really lived, as opposed to the fictional representations of revolutionary misinformation and propaganda. The high profile prisoners like Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade actually led a pretty cushy existence, complete with suites of rooms, their own furniture and dinner parties with outside guests.

Clothing belonging to prisoner DamiensEven the poor prisoners — forgers, printers, Huguenots — lived in far more comfortable conditions than prisoners in any other prison in Paris. They each had their own cells and the prison could only hold a maximum of 50 prisoners, so there wasn’t anything like the squalor and horror that characterized most prisons.

They were still in a 14th century fortress, though, locked behind 3 triple-locked doors, with highly restricted, censored communications and enforced secrecy. Prisoners were sent to the Bastille by secret order of the King. There was no trial, not even any explanation of the charges.

People were not put in the Bastille for crimes such as theft or murder. They were there for troubling the social order. This included Protestants, homosexuals, prostitutes, traitors, and anyone who dared say anything against the king or his reign — which meant most of the prisoners were authors, publishers and book peddlers.

Life inside the Bastille had its limitations, and communications with the outside world were strictly controlled. One prisoner sent a message on his handkerchief written out of coffee and soot, on display in the exhibit. Another smuggled his out in a cheese. One prisoner sewed a message onto a piece of cloth, claiming his innocence and asking whoever found it to help him.

“Secret is the word that defines this prison. Prisoners who left the Bastille would have to sign a register promising to never talk about the prisoners they saw in the Bastille or what they lived through,” Dutray said.

One story in the archives describes a terminally ill Protestant woman who was sent to the Bastille. Her daughter was allowed to accompany her even though the daughter was not technically under arrest. She remained by her mother’s side, hiding the truth of how ill her mother was from her captors to ensure she would not be forcibly converted to Catholicism, until her death. Once the woman died, officials didn’t want to release the daughter because she might talk, so they just kept her prisoner in the Bastille for a few years until finally sending her to a convent for the newly converted.

It was that secrecy which fed the rumors of torture and dark doings that would make the Bastille a symbol of royal abuse and a primary revolutionary target. When 8000 people stormed it on what would become known as Bastille Day, they found only 7 prisoners inside and a cache of gunpowder and weapons. They released the prisoners, dumped the archives, killed the governor and some of the guards, and the next day began to demolish the fortress itself.

Miniature of the Bastille carved out of stone from the Bastille (Carnavalet Museum).Today there are only a few stones of it left on Boulevard Henri IV, a miniature sculpture of the fortress carved out of one the building stones, a door and a few keys. Two of those keys are on display at the Arsenal Library exhibit.

Mount Vernon Bastille key, photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1944, LIFE magazineOne of them is part of the permanent collection of Mount Vernon. The Marquis de Lafayette presented the key to the west portal of the Bastille to George Washington along with a sketch of the fortress. In a letter dated March 17, 1790, he wrote “Give me leave, my dear General to present you with a picture of the Bastille, just as it looked a few days after I had ordered its demolition, with the main key of the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute, which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide-de-Camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch.”

Half a stamp sells for $350,000

Half of a postage stamp sold at an auction in Bietigheim-Bissingen, south Germany, for $347,500 yesterday. The stamp was issued by the Lower Saxony town of Syke in 1872, just a year after German unification. It’s not in mint condition or printed upside down or designed by Lawrence of Arabia. It’s actually on an envelope and postmarked. The reason it is so valuable is that it was split in two.

A spokesman for Gaertner Auction House explains:

“Stamps were in short supply in Syke between 1872 and 1874 so it was decided that they should be cut in half as a makeshift solution,” she said. “But because this was only done for a short period, very few letters actually bear these halved stamps.”

When they were created, bisects were worth half the face value of the whole stamp. Postmasters would divide less popular larger denomination stamps into fractions when stocks of the more popular cheaper denominations ran out. Sometimes it wasn’t just halves, but also quarters and eighths, as during Mexico’s classic period (1856 – 1874). People also split stamps informally and used them for the fraction of their face value and postal officials tacitly accepted them even when they were officially verboten.

Bisects and splits only have philatelic value if they are still attached to the envelope or postcard complete with postmark. If the stamp is on its own, there’s no way to tell that it wasn’t just cut up after it was used. Unlike many of the most famous rarities, for instance the Inverted Jenny, there is no such thing as a mint condition sheet of bisections.

The Syke bisect is both official and extremely rare. Only 3 of them are known to exist today, and this particular one is famous in its own right because it was on the cover of the definitive book on Syke bisects written by the felicitously named Rolf Rohlfs in 1982. Two bidders, one from north Germany, one from the south, went head to head for this special half stamp. The north German collector won.

Syke bisect, postmarked 1872