A sketch worth hundreds of thousands, a children’s book and a ‘missing’ masterpiece… In the past three months, three unique works of art by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso have been found under strange and unexpected circumstances. Is this coincidence or not?
When the President of the Philippines, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, won a landslide victory in May 2022, he visited the home of his mother Imelda, former first lady and wife of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
In a video in which mother congratulates her son, a detail in Imelda’s opulent home stood out. On the wall hung a striking painting of an abstract nude, rendered in blue and green, 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, with money transferred from the Philippines to Switzerland. By the time he was impeached in 1986, he had looted a whopping $10 billion.
In 2014, “Femme Couchée VI” became the target of seizure by anti-corruption authorities in the Philippines who tried to recover some of those missing billions, but they failed to confiscate it and the work was declared “missing”. . Ever since it was sighted in Imelda’s living room, questions have arisen as to whether she owns the authentic version of the painting or a forgery, or perhaps both.
“It’s an amazing story, for quite a few reasons,” Ruth Millington, art historian and author of “Muse.” “It can take a criminologist tens or hundreds of years to track down a painting, but this painting has been spotted online.”
Since Picasso’s paintings of his muses are his most prized works, the real “Femme Couchée VI” will likely be worth tens of millions of dollars. “It’s a bold and brutal move by the family when it’s real to put it on the walls behind her,” adds Millington. “But if it’s a replica, then it’s the ultimate attempt to troll the authorities looking for the real painting.”
“An important discovery”
A 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.
While searching family storage in June 2022, she came across a collection of origami birds and sketchbooks full of the artist’s colorful depictions of animals, clowns and acrobats.
Pablo Picasso made this origami bird for his daughter from exhibition invitation cards
📸 Adam Rzepka © Private Collection pic.twitter.com/gXP1zeGgJ0
— Deepa 🕯️ (@kdeep) June 20, 2022
When she showed the books to her mother – Picasso’s eldest daughter Maya Ruiz-Picasso – the memories came back. The artist had used the sketches to teach his daughter, now 86 years old, to draw when she was a child. On some pages, her notes and sketches appeared alongside her father’s. In addition to a circus scene, she wrote the number “10” to indicate her approval.
“It’s an incredibly important discovery,” Millington says. “We all know that Picasso was intrigued by children’s fantasy. In the form of the sketchbook, this shows the hard evidence of this. It also shows that the dialogue between him and his daughter brings that personal element to it.”
Weeks later, on July 5, 2022, another work of art by the master of Cubism unexpectedly came to light.
After being tipped off by customs officials, authorities at Ibiza Airport in Spain searched the luggage of a passenger arriving from Switzerland and found a drawing, believed to be “Trois Personnages” by Picasso, hidden in his bags.
Upon discovery of the work, the passenger claimed it was a copy and showed authorities a bill worth approximately $1,560. But a further search of his bags revealed a second invoice, from an art gallery in Zurich. The sketch, considered authentic, is valued at over $460,000.
A prolific artist
Picasso was a prolific creator, estimated to have created about 50,000 works of art in his lifetime, compared to about 20,000 by Andy Warhol and 900 paintings by Van Gough. And these are just the authentic versions. “There are more fake Picassos than real Picassos, and there are a lot of real Picassos,” said Dr. Donna Yates, associate professor of criminal law and criminology at Maastricht University.
Currently, the demand for works by the Spanish master is booming. “Since the pandemic, people have been putting their money into artworks and trying to resell them in a way that no one expected,” said Millington. Uncertainty in other markets makes art seem like a safe bet, “and a solid investment is something from a great master, like Picasso.”
In works like “Femme Couchée VI” infamy and intrigue only increase the value. Millington says, “even the fake can be worth quite a lot right now because of the story around it.”
In a market full of Picassos – real and fake – where those works are in high demand, what about three that unexpectedly come to light in so different circumstances, in such a short time?
While the stories may be unique, they are not entirely unexpected. “It’s almost strangely predictable,” Yates says. “It seems strange that we have three kinds of Picasso things, but he produced a lot of work, so there are a lot of Picasso artworks. At the same time, many people direct his work in a number of ways, because he is very famous and his works are desirable.”
The art market is estimated to be worth $65.1 billion worldwide, and the art crime market is also very valuable. There are no global figures on the cost of art crime, but in the US alone, the FBI’s art crime team has recovered more than 15,000 items worth more than $800 million since 2004.
According to Yates, a single case of a possible fake Picasso and another case of illegal smuggling within three months of each other is “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the true scale of art crimes happening worldwide.
The smuggling incident in Ibiza is perhaps the least surprising of Picasso’s three recent discoveries. “People think that artworks are always transported in well-packaged crates by professional art handlers, but often they are transported in carry-on luggage,” says Millington.
Not only does this avoid costs like taxes and the permissions needed to move some valuable works, but the chances of getting caught are slim. “Often the least sophisticated forms of smuggling are the most successful,” Yates says. “Another way to smuggle things is through the mail.”
The process of how valuable works of art fall into the hands of smugglers is relatively simple. Essentially, works are sold to the highest bidder. “And frankly, more and more individuals have a lot more money than museums to buy these pieces,” Yates says. Once an individual owns a work of art, there is little to stop them from transporting it as they please or selling it to whomever they please.
Perhaps the most unique of the three discoveries are the sketchbooks and origami found in France. But while there’s no trace of foul play, even this discovery may not be as simple 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 extremely favorable.
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 later, a surprising discovery of new artifacts is sure to contribute to the promotion effort, especially as the sketchbooks and birds will be added to the items on display.
Nevertheless, Millington is delighted that they will be put on display in a museum, “where there is some reflection on Picasso and his interest in children’s imaginations.”
“I think they would do extremely well in the art market, but the market is so unregulated,” she says. “It’s like the Wild West.”