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Retired French electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife, Danielle, are being tried for possession of stolen goods after coming forward with a trove of 271 undocumented Pablo Picasso paintings.

SUCCESSION PICASSO/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The way the French electrician Pierre Le Guennec recalls it, in the early 1970s, he worked in the Provence countryside, near the artistic colony in the village of Mougins.One client, who lived in a hilltop farmhouse, was Pablo Picasso, and one day, the painter's wife, Jacqueline, rewarded Mr. Le Guennec's labour by handing him a package of artwork and saying, "It's for you."

On Tuesday, four decades later, Mr. Le Guennec, now 75 and retired, and his wife, Danielle, 71, appeared at the courthouse of the southern town of Grasse on trial for possession of stolen goods.

The couple stunned the art world in 2010 when they revealed that 271 undocumented Picassos had been sitting in their garage in the village of Mouans-Sartoux.

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They insisted the artworks were a token of appreciation from the Spanish master and his wife. But Picasso's children and estate were dubious, because they did not recall that Mr. Le Guennec was close to their father.

Their suspicions were fuelled further after discovering that Mr. Le Guennec was related to the artist's former chauffeur, Maurice Bresnu, known as Nounours (Teddy Bear), whose ownership of several Picassos is also contested.

The key characters in the case – Picasso and his wife, and Mr. Bresnu and his wife – had already died. Nevertheless, the connection between the Le Guennecs and Mr. Bresnu was odd enough that they were put under investigation and charged.

The trial began with Mr. Le Guennec in the witness box, testifying about his relationship with the painter, who would have been 89 or 90 years old.

"Picasso had an absolute trust in me, perhaps because I was discreet," Mr. Le Guennec told the court, according to Agence France-Presse.

He said the Picassos grew close to him and called him "Little Cousin," in contrast to "Big Cousin," the burlier Mr. Bresnu.

The case started in 2010 when the Le Guennecs got in touch with the Picasso Administration, the Paris firm that manages the painter's estate.

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The couple had some Picassos they wanted to authenticate. They travelled to the French capital and met with Claude Picasso, one of the painter's four children, who is an administrator of the estate.

They showed him a collection of drawings, studies, paintings, prints, sketchbooks and collages. He concluded that the heretofore unknown works were created between 1900 and 1932.

He doubted, however, that the works had been given to the couple because they had no signatures or dedications. Furthermore, the estate said, Picasso would not have disposed of his sketchbooks, which were essential to his creative process.

A few months later, the Paris auction house Druot announced a sale of Picassos for the estate of a "Mrs. B." She was the late Jacqueline Bresnu, Mr. Bresnu's widow. Police discovered that she was a cousin of Mr. Le Guennec.

The auction was called off as investigators tried to sort out how the chauffeur and the electrician had come into possession of so many Picassos.

The estate says it is odd that Mr. Le Guennec would not disclose that he was related to Jacqueline Bresnu and would have been one of the heirs benefiting from her estate's Picasso sale.

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The lawyer for the Le Guennecs, Charles-Etienne Gudin, says it is a sign of his clients' good faith and guilelessness that they would go see the Picasso Administration.

However, the estate's lawyer, Jean-Jacques Neuer, argued that the Le Guennecs had no choice: The artworks would have little value unless they were certified by the Picasso Administration.

Inside the courtroom, Mr. Le Guennec said he did not look too closely at the carton of artworks that Jacqueline Picasso gave him and just stashed it away in his garage.

"I didn't think of them as artwork. They were sketches, torn bits, it didn't call out at me. It wasn't like I had received a painting, it's not the same thing, not the same reaction."

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