A sketch worth hundreds of thousands, a children’s book and a ‘lost’ masterpiece… In the past three months, three unique works of art by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso have been found under strange and unexpected circumstances. Is that a coincidence or not?
When the President of the Philippines, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., won a landslide victory in May 2022, he was visiting the home of his mother Imelda, former first lady and wife of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
In a video of the mother congratulating her son, one detail in Imelda’s opulent home stood out. On the wall hung a striking painting of an abstract nude in tones of 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 Sr. acquired while the dictator was in power, with funds diverted from the Philippines to Switzerland. By the time he was deposed in 1986, he had looted up to $10 billion.
In 2014, “Femme Couchée VI” was confiscated by anti-corruption authorities in the Philippines who tried to recover some of those missing billions, but they did not 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 fake, or possibly both.
“It’s an amazing story for a number of reasons,” says Ruth Millington, art historian and author of Muse. “It may take a criminologist decades or hundreds of years to track down a painting, but this one was discovered online.”
Since Picasso’s paintings of his muses are his most prized works, the real Femme Couchée VI may be worth tens of millions of dollars. “It’s a bold and outrageous move by the family when showing it on the walls behind her is the real deal,” adds Millington. “But if it’s a replica, then it’s the ultimate attempt to troll the authorities who are looking for the real painting.”
“An Important Discovery”
A month after Bongbong Marcos’ 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 the family store in June 2022, she came across a collection of origami birds and sketchbooks filled with the artist’s colorful images 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 – memories came flooding back. The artist used the sketches to teach his 86-year-old daughter how to draw when she was a child. On some pages her notes and sketches appeared alongside those of her father. Next to a circus scene she wrote the number “10” indicating her approval.
“This is an incredibly important discovery,” says Millington. “We all know that Picasso was fascinated by children’s imaginations. This proves this in the form of the sketchbook. It also shows that the dialogue between him and his daughter brings in that personal element.”
Weeks later, on July 5, 2022, another work of art by the master of Cubism unexpectedly came to light.
Following a lead from customs officials, authorities at Ibiza Airport in Spain searched the luggage of a passenger arriving from Switzerland and found hidden drawings in his pockets, believed to be Picasso’s “Trois Personnages”.
When the passenger spotted the work, he claimed it was a copy and showed authorities a bill worth about $1,560. But a further search of his pockets turned up a second bill 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, having created an estimated 50,000 works of art during 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,” says Dr. Donna Yates, Associate Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
The demand for works by the Spanish master is currently booming. “Since the pandemic, people have been pouring their money into artworks and trying to resell them in ways no one expected,” says Millington. The 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, shame and intrigue add value. Millington says, “Even the fake could be worth quite a bit now based on the history surrounding it.”
In a market full of Picassos – real and fake – where these works are in high demand, what is to be thought of three unexpectedly turning up 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 oddly predictable,” says Yates. “It seems odd that we have three types of Picasso things, but he’s produced a lot of work, so there’s a lot of Picasso artwork out there. At the same time, because he is very famous and his works are desirable, many people are targeting his work in different ways.”
‘The wild West’
The art market is worth an estimated $65.1 billion worldwide and the art crime market is also very valuable. There are no global figures for the cost of art crime, but in the US alone, the FBI’s art crime team has seized more than 15,000 items worth over $800 million since 2004.
According to Yates, a single case of a potentially counterfeit Picasso and another case of illegal smuggling that took place within three months are “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the true extent of art crimes taking place around the world.
The Ibiza smuggling incident is perhaps the least surprising of the three recent Picasso discoveries. “People think that artworks are always transported in well-packaged boxes by professional art brokers, but often they’re transported in carry-on luggage,” says Millington.
Not only does this avoid costs like taxes and the permits 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,” says Yates. “Another most common way of smuggling things is through the mail.”
The process by which valuable works of art end up in the hands of smugglers is relatively straightforward. Works are generally sold to the highest bidder. “And honestly, more and more individuals have a lot more money than museums to buy these pieces,” says Yates. Once a person owns a work of art, little prevents them from transporting it as they please or to whom they wish to resell it.
Perhaps the most unique of the three discoveries are the sketchbooks and origami found in France. But while there’s no hint of foul play, even that discovery may not be as easy 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 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 later, a surprising discovery of new artifacts will surely aid the promotional effort, especially as the sketchbooks and birds are set to be added to the items on display.
Nonetheless, Millington is pleased that they are being displayed in a museum “where there is some reflection on Picasso and his interest in children’s imaginations”.
“I think they would do very well in the art market, but the market is so unregulated,” she says. “It’s like in the Wild West.”