The day Picasso died, I went out the back door, knowing that the party was over. My easy life as the Picassos’ full-time electrician and handyman at the chateau was finished. Everyone on the staff knew it was the end of the line. Jacqueline, the artist’s widow, was waiting to see what his illegitimate children, who had never liked her, would do next.
On the parking circle, my cousin Laurent, who worked as Picasso’s chauffeur, waited for me, dangling the keys to our employer’s Rolls Royce. For the two years that I worked at the house, Laurent made me pretend we didn’t know each other, as if he were ashamed of me.
“Shall we go for a last ride?” he asked.
I knew it wasn’t right, but I nodded, and off we went through the olive groves, as darkness gathered in the tall cypress trees. The car purred over the empty road, the leather interior and rosewood steering wheel exhaling a new-car fragrance.
At last Laurent stopped the car in a secluded forest. “This is yours,” he said, twisting toward the back seat where I saw five or six flat, gray cardboard boxes.
I recognized them from when I’d installed the security system in Picasso’s art studio. “I want you to have part of Picasso’s gift to me.” He handed me one of the boxes. A gift? Was he kidding? My eyes must have expressed my confusion, because he added, “I’m leaving the region tomorrow. We can never be seen together again.”
I pushed the box away, but Laurent wasn’t about to give up on me. “Think of this as your retirement plan. Today you might get half a million dollars for what’s in that box. But in ten years, those drawings will be worth at least forty million.”
He dropped me off in back of the big house. I sat alone in my truck for half an hour, regretting the loss, in the same day, of my boss, my job, and my cousin.
Two years before Picasso died, my cousin Laurent, an ex-soccer player and local hero, called me and told me to meet him at 3:00 pm at the bar of the hotel in Antibes, not far from the town where I lived. I ordered a cup of tea so the waitress wouldn’t hover. Laurent was forty minutes late. I hadn’t seen him for more than a year, since he’d become the chauffeur for the Picasso family at their house was a few miles inland from the Côte d’Azur.
“Eh, Michel, still a wimp, I see.” Laurent breezed into the room, making the table cloths flutter like women’s skirts. Laughing and boasting about his winning bet on the World Cup soccer match in Brazil, he kissed me on both cheeks. He had shoulders like a bull, a rugged but handsome face. He ordered a pastis and gave my tea cup a pitying look. “You’re almost thirty. Time for you to grow up.”
Laurent, ten years older than me, had taken me under his wing when my father died. I was twelve at the time, a gangling adolescent, always out of focus in my school photos. He helped me with my homework, explaining the hard stuff like negative numbers or the plays of Molière. He brought me to watch his soccer matches.
Once when two older boys tried to grab my lunch on my way to school, Laurent came cruising by in the taxi that he drove back then. “Don’t mess with Michel,” he roared, jumping out and punching the bigger kid. As I grew older, he encouraged me to become an electrician like my father.
Laurent’s pastis glass looked fragile in his powerful hand. “You know who Picasso is, right,” he said. Everyone in my village knew that a famous Spanish artist lived in the next town and painted ugly, nude women. “Today’s your lucky day. Picasso’s wife Jacqueline wants to hire an electrician.” He handed me a note with a phone number on it. “Call her and tell her you’re interested. You know about installing security systems, don’t you?”
I’d been putting in perimeter alarms and motion detectors for my rich summer clients. But these jobs kept me employed only in the season.
“It’s a big job. If she likes your work, she’ll keep you on as a full-time handyman. Big chateaux always need an oven repaired or old wiring replaced.”
Proud that Laurent would recommend me, I felt my troubles lifting.
“You mean I’ll be working in the same place as you? I’ll get to see you now and then?”
“Not quite. There’s one small matter,” he said. “You can’t let on that we know each other.”
He ordered another pastis and glanced around the room. “This job is a big step for me. I’m meeting a lot of important people. I can’t afford to lose my credibility with the Picassos if you screw up.”
I felt taken aback that Laurent didn’t want to associate with me. But I was delighted at the prospect of finding year-round employment. Finally, I could marry Sabine, the prettiest girl in my neighborhood, before she married some other underemployed admirer.
When I started working at the house, Picasso was ninety years old and wheelchair-bound. Only Laurent could move him from his wheelchair to his leather armchair. They spent hours together watching soccer on TV or playing dominoes. I overheard Picasso telling him about his early years in Paris, his opinions of other modern artists who’d been in his circle. It felt odd pretending not to know Laurent. But Jacqueline was always kind to me, giving me fresh croissants in the kitchen and asking me how my new wife Sabine and I were getting along.
When I’d married Sabine, a few months after I began my job with the Picassos, there wasn’t even running water at my house. She had to use the rusty pump to wash the dishes. In our year together, I’d put in a connection to town water and bought new appliances for the kitchen. Every night she made wonderful dinners for us. We were happy together.
“I wish you’d look in on Pablo,” Jacqueline said to me one morning a few months before the artist died. “Laurent’s gone out. Maybe you can keep the old man company.”
When I stepped into the master’s day room, he was alone, sitting in his wheelchair. I couldn’t tell if he recognized me. I readjusted the thermostat, so he’d know I was on the staff. He looked up and started murmuring to himself. His head was as round and smooth as a bowling ball, his eyes dark and unreadable. The stitches of his fisherman’s sweater stretched across his broad chest.
The room was filled with canvases stacked upright against the bookcases. A wooden mask with a bulging forehead hung on the wall behind his desk. Its small round mouth reminded me of a funnel. Next to the window was a drawing of a bull-man, I once heard Laurent call it a minotaur, towering over a nude model asleep on the floor of an artist’s studio.
After a while, the master emerged from his daydreams and said in a papery voice, “I was your age once, young man. I lived in Paris. Women used to fight over me. Now no one fights over me but my family.”
Here I was, alone with Picasso, the most famous artist alive, according to the cook. Perhaps he’d like to play cards, I thought. I looked down at the dirt under my fingernails and was too embarrassed to suggest it. I asked if he wanted to sit by the window, and he nodded. I rolled the chair across the room and lifted his old legs onto a foot stool, surprised to feel how thin they were. I tucked him in with a blanket, the way I’d seen Laurent do when the two of them were playing dominoes and smoking cigars.
“Where’s Laurent?” His white eyebrows furrowed.
“Nobody’s seen him this morning. Marie says she doesn’t know where he is.” Marie, Laurent’s wife, was Jacqueline’s long-time chambermaid. They lived in the back wing of the house. I could always hear Marie approaching, because she carried a ring of keys, even bigger now that I’d installed the security system and turned over the keys to her. In recent months, Laurent occasionally disappeared for hours at a time while Picasso was napping.
Picasso looked lost. Laurent was his only friend in this big, lonely place. Soon the master fell asleep. I couldn’t tell if he knew who I was or not. I was afraid he’d wake up and think I was an intruder, ask me what I was doing here, or worse, what I thought about his paintings. The cook once told me that his initials and a squiggle or two on a piece of paper was better than currency.
The night after Picasso died, I pulled my truck up my unpaved driveway. Without daring to look inside, I hid the box Laurent had given me in the shed next to the rustic house I had built. When Sabine told me, a few months ago, that she thought she was pregnant, I’d promised to build an extension on the house for a second bedroom. We’d sat around for hours thinking of names. The night after Picasso died, she told me she’d been to her doctor, who’d confirmed that the baby was a boy.
Now I had to worry that the boy’s future could be ruined if anyone discovered the box in my shed. All through dinner, I felt disturbed and anxious about the box. After Sabine fell asleep, I crept out across the driveway. The moon was shining through breaks in the ragged clouds. I lifted the lid off the box, and a drawing of a woman caught my eye. It was sketched with a few heavy blue lines on cream-colored paper.
At the sight of her, an electric current ran from my eyes to my gut. Her body looked like it had been cobbled together with parts from a baboon and an old-fashioned coffee percolator. Her narrow face was elongated by a chin that resembled the heel of a miner’s boot. Her large, pointed nose was folded over to one side. A thinner line, from the inside of her hip, trailed down to the tiny blue bird’s nest between her legs.
“Hideous,” I said aloud and pressed the lid down on the box. Who would pay tens of thousands of dollars for such a drawing? I thought of tearing it up, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it because Picasso had been decent to me during those last months of his life. I felt a wave of nausea and swore never to look inside the box again. I had become not its guardian but its hostage. As I tried to sleep that night, I was pursued by visions of women with noses like dog snouts, and bulls with burning red eyes.
“What’s wrong with you?” Sabine asked me the next morning, stroking my hand.
“Nothing,” I said, unable to look at her. I didn’t want to find myself thinking about the animal-woman who’d taken up residence in my shed and my brain. That night I returned to the shed and shoved the box onto the highest shelf. It sat there for four decades.
I didn’t notice the sputtering of a missing cylinder in my engine until I turned my pickup truck into the driveway that, according to my directions, led to my cousin Laurent’s house in Languedoc. I pulled onto the parking area, surrounded by a manicured lawn edged with roses, and let the engine shudder to a halt across from the front door. The buzzing of the cicadas punctuated the ensuing silence. At the sight of Laurent’s imposing residence, my vision of a cheerful reunion faded. I felt like I was visiting a rich client, not a family member who used to carry me around on his shoulders when I was a boy. Already I had second thoughts about my Sunday afternoon visit to a man I hadn’t seen or talked to for a decade and a half.
Recently, I’d read in Le Monde that he was having an exhibition of his collection of Picasso drawings at a gallery in Paris. There were photos of him arm in arm with artists, writers, and politicians, just like I’d seen him at dinner parties at Picasso’s house. Times had been harder than usual for me that year. It had been a cold summer in the south of France. The hotels I now worked for were less than half full, and they weren’t spending money on renovations or repairs.
I remembered the evening we’d left the big house, when Laurent told me we couldn’t be seen together again. When I looked hurt, he’d said, “Three people can keep a secret, but only if two of them are dead.” But fifteen years had gone by, and I hoped he might give me a helping hand.
“Nice gardens you got here,” I called out to Laurent, who was pruning the boxwoods. The stone house with its floor-to-ceiling windows looked like a smaller version of Picasso’s house. I knew Laurent would remind me that he’d given me a whole box of Picasso drawings, which ought to make me richer than most of my clients. But since I knew nothing about the art market, I had no idea how to sell drawings that I strongly suspected to be stolen. It took someone bold, like Laurent, to do that.
“Whoa,” he said, gesturing to me to back off as I got out of my truck and came toward him with open arms.
“Aunt Berthe gave me your address,” I said. “I went to visit her last winter.” Laurent had gained a lot of weight and had gray seeding through his once dark hair. “I’ve come all this way to talk with you about old times.”
“What times were those?” he asked.
“Don’t you want to know about how I’m doing these days?”
“I think I can guess.” He slapped a cricket that landed on his forearm.
“No. You can’t guess. I have two wonderful sons. Smart. They plan to become engineers. You should meet them.”
“I’d like to. Believe me, I would. I’ll keep them in mind and try to do something for them.”
Looking all around to make sure no one was listening, I took a step closer and confessed, “I’d like your help with selling my art works.”
“As if I didn’t know that. Poor Michel. I hoped you might at least have had a little talk with a local art dealer about how to go about selling a souvenir or two from your former employer.” He gave a sour laugh. “Go home. If it gets around that you’re my cousin, and that we both worked for the Picassos without their knowing it, the game’s over. For both of us.” I’d come all this way to ask his help in selling my drawings, but he had no support to offer me.
“Couldn’t we just talk? Like about Aunt Bertha. She’s in a nursing home now, you know.”
“I’ve talked with her. Who do you think is paying her bills?”
“I never should have agreed to take the box. Not even for a million dollars’ worth of art.”
“A million? You’re behind the times. Try forty million in today’s art market.” He sniffed. “I told you to hang onto them. Who else ever gave you such good financial advice, eh? You disappoint me, Michel. You just don’t get why we need to stay apart.”
“I don’t know anything about selling art. You could tell me what to do,” I said.
He raised his massive shoulders like one of Picasso’s minotaurs. “Find an art dealer in the region and sell them one at a time to avoid raising suspicion.”
“The problem is, I don’t want them in my garage.” I scratched behind my ear. “I live in constant fear they’ll be discovered.” I paused as if waiting for him to spare me from what I was about to propose. The cicadas sang in a single mighty voice, and white tufted seeds swirled down like tiny parachutes. “Look, I’ll give them to you. If you sell any of them, you can give me a little commission.” If I had a choice, I would rather have my cousin back, the way it used to be, than the drawings.
Laurent laughed at my clumsiness. “Sorry, I can’t help you. I have too many drawings of my own to sell. Besides, if I took the drawings off your hands, you could rat me out at any time.”
My neck snapped with surprise. Did he really think I would do that? I laughed as if he were joking, but it was clear enough he didn’t trust me.
“How do you do it?” I shifted the weight on my feet. “Selling your drawings, I mean?”
“Picasso’s daughters adored me. When they visited the house, they nicknamed me ‘Teddy Bear’ and wanted to ride around on my shoulders. They were the ones who sponsored the exhibition of my drawings in Paris last year. Now I’m legit. I can sell my drawings openly, and I can afford whatever I want.” He paused. “Except being related to you.”
Laurent made a move toward his front steps, and for a moment, I thought he was going to go inside and ignore me. His wife Marie, Picasso’s long-time housekeeper, appeared at the door. She was the one I’d taught to operate the alarm system in Picasso’s studio. Of course. That’s how Laurent pulled it off. How had I failed to put the pieces together before?
“Who are you talking to?” she asked Laurent, her voice like a dentist’s drill.
“No one, chèrie.” He scowled as he glanced toward me. Behind the screen door, I saw she held back a German Shepherd by its collar.
“Then it’s time for him to leave.”
Laurent turned up his hands as if to indicate he was powerless to oppose his spouse’s wish. I turned toward my truck and felt as if a metal door had slammed shut behind me. I dragged myself across the driveway and sank into the driver’s seat of my truck. The engine rumbled to life. It was a long drive back to the Côte d’Azur. The darkening highway taunted me with my helplessness. My sons deserved a better father.
Many years later, I was on one of those high-speed trains to Paris for the first time in my life, barreling through the lavender fields of Provence at 250 kilometers an hour and past hillsides dotted with poppies like scarlet coin purses. I’d retired a few years ago with a modest government pension after being diagnosed with cancer. Sabine made sure I took my medications and grew vegetables in our garden.
My sons had become engineers and had high-paying jobs now. Last summer, they brought their families to the South of France to visit Sabine and me. We took our grand-children to a local soccer match, and they made fun of our regional accents.
One day when I was out in the garden planting tomatoes, Sabine brought me a cup of tea and asked me what would happen to her after I was gone. That was when I knew I needed to do something about the box of drawings that had sat untouched in my crumbling shed all this time. Someone might stumble across it, and she’d be dragged into a criminal investigation.
I’d prepared my story long ago in case the box was ever discovered: Jacqueline Picasso handed it to me the day the artist died. By now I could almost remember the conversation, the two of us standing in the drafty hallway next to the vaulted kitchen. Jaqueline herself had died decades ago, at which point, Picasso’s three illegitimate children had gained title to all of their father’s unsold art works. Laurent died the year after Jacqueline, and his wife retreated to their house and lived as a recluse until she died a year ago. There was comfort in knowing that everyone who could contradict my story was now dead.
At a street market in Cannes, I talked with a couple of dealers who sold cheap reproductions of Picasso prints about how to sell Picasso drawings. They told me I needed to have them authenticated by the Picasso Foundation in Paris, established by his three children after they took possession of his estate.
The hotel particulier that housed the Picasso Foundation was just off the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The chrome and leather chair I sat in was uncomfortable and squeaked when I shifted my weight. The Foundation’s administrator, with whom I had made an appointment, bustled into his office thirty minutes late.
“So, you were the electrician,” he said, sliding his glasses down his nose with one finger. “Are the drawings in there?” He pointed to the faded box. “Could you put that on my desk, please?”
He appeared to be in his mid-sixties, several years younger than me. He leafed through the first twenty drawings, one at a time, stacking them on his desk with care. He studied a few of the sheets at length and muttered, “I see. I see.” My stomach heaved. What did he see?
He started to flip through them more rapidly, ten or twenty at a time. “The unusual thing about these drawings,” he said, “is that they’re unsigned. When Picasso gave a work of art to a friend, he usually signed and dated it, knowing that the individual would sell it.”
“Jacqueline gave them to me,” I hastened to say.
“A number of these works appear to be early ones, from his Cubist period.”
“I’m no art expert,” I replied.
His smirk said he was aware of that. “The numbers on the backs of these drawings match up with the complex numbering system Picasso used throughout his life. They’re definitely authentic.”
Numbers? What numbers? I’d never even looked at the backs.
“I have just one question for you.” He tented his fingers. “Why would Picasso give so many drawings to you?”
“I was Jacqueline’s friend. She’s the one who gave them to me.”
“Yes, but more than two hundred original art works? When you made the appointment, I imagined you might have two or three.” He flipped through them again and pulled something from the bottom of the pile that looked like yellow paper, typed with numerous overstrikes. “What can you tell me about this?” he asked as he studied the pages.
The writing on the paper appeared to be a list. My mind spun in disarray. I never even knew these yellow pages were there. Had Laurent made a list of the contents of the box sometime before he gave it to me? Not knowing what explanation to give, I said, “I made it.”
“It appears to be an inventory. Here’s an intriguing entry, ‘Strong resemblance to a Cubist harlequin drawing in the collection of MoMA.’” He gave me a little sneer. “What does MoMA mean to you?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. “I don’t remember,” I said. “My local librarian helped me make the list. She looked up a lot of information.” For good measure I added, “She’s been dead for ten years.”
“I’ll give you a clue. It’s in New York.” He scratched his throat under his tie. “The thing that intrigues me is that, just a few weeks ago, the French art police notified me about a group of Picasso drawings coming up for sale at an auction house in Paris, from the joint estate of Marie Reynaud, Picasso’s housekeeper, and her husband Laurent Reynaud, his chauffeur. And it seems that you were named in the will as one of the couple’s heirs. An interesting coincidence, don’t you think?” He coughed and continued, “Of course I’m working with the police to stop the sale from going forward. When Jacqueline’s estate was settled, the court ruled that all of Picasso’s work that hadn’t been legitimately sold or given away belonged to the Foundation.”
I knew about the will and the auction. I didn’t know there might be complications. When the lawyer for the estate had contacted me a few months ago to get my consent for the auction, he mentioned that Laurent had intended the legacy for my two sons. But he warned me that they didn’t have that much to gain. Laurent had sold the most valuable drawings long ago, and Marie turned out to have a lot of relations who had all been given shares of the estate. But I had been excited to see articles about the upcoming sale in the newspapers.
Now here I was, wishing I hadn’t been related to Laurent or that no one in the world knew we were cousins. Finally, I understood why, all those years ago, Laurent had kept me at a distance. In the end, as it turned out, it was Laurent who ratted me out, by leaving me a legacy.
As I got up to leave the office, to my surprise, the director handed the box back to me. He glanced at his watch and said, “The Foundation will need to inventory and certify your drawings and add them to our data base of Picasso’s complete works. We can send someone to the Côte d’Azur to pick them up. Or we can bring you back to Paris with the drawings, if you prefer.” His willingness to let the drawings go suggested how much he trusted the police to intervene.
“I need to get to the station now,” I said, my head pounding. “There’s only one train back to the Côte d’Azur this evening.”
He handed me his card. “You’ll be hearing from us soon,” he said, in a way that made me not want to hear from him ever again.
Outside on the busy sidewalk, no one showed any more interest in my old, tattered box than if it held dirty shirts.
Returning to my region late that evening, tired and shaken, I stopped on my way home at the hotel cafe in Antibes where I’d made the devil’s bargain with Laurent all those years ago. The cafe looked different, no tablecloths, an extra wide flatscreen TV behind the bar.
I collapsed into a chair in a dark corner and wondered what I would tell Sabine, how I could even face her. Why hadn’t I turned over the drawings to the authorities long ago? I had no answers. How long before the police showed up at my door? Laurent had played me for a sap right here in this café, and it had taken me four decades to figure out how calculating he had been.
“What’ll it be tonight?” asked the waitress, tattoos spilling down her arms from under her T-shirt sleeves.
“A pastis. Isn’t that what you usually have?”
Evidently, she was confusing me with someone else. A regular, perhaps, some sad old guy. I stared at my pastis without drinking it, dropped a few coins, and left with the gray box under my arm. Outside the night was dark. The clouds blotted out the stars.
Image: View from Picasso’s House in Antibes by Olga Khomitsevich, licensed under CC 2.0.
I was watching the news on French television when the anchorman reported that 271 drawings by Picasso had been recovered. This cache, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of art, had remained undetected for forty years. Back then, in 2010, Picasso’s former handyman was arrested for his role in the theft. His deceased cousin, who had been Picasso’s chauffeur, was also implicated. Determined to write a story about the handyman and his cousin who had masterminded the theft, I followed the investigation and trial in the French press for six years. In 2015, the electrician was found guilty. His appeal was denied the following year, though he was not sentenced, due to his poor health.
The biggest challenge in writing Art Thieves was how to bridge the gap in the action between the machinations of the cousins and the discovery of the theft four decades later. The solution came when I decided to open the story on the night of the theft, then to recount briefly the backstory of life in Picasso’s chateau and the chauffeur’s recruitment of his cousin as his partner in crime.