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In 1965, Pablo Picasso was walking in his adopted home town of Mougins, in the south of France. At one point, his path was blocked by a sidewalk that was being repaired, and, upon noticing that the cement was still wet, he took a nearby stick and wrote his name in the bottom corner of the pavement. He turned around and walked home.
When the workers who were repairing the sidewalk saw what had happened, they decided amongst themselves that it was best to leave the signature in place, as Picasso was a local celebrity, and even an act of vandalism could well be considered a work of great artistic significance. The signed sidewalk added to Mougins’ mystique as the home of the great cubist.
Not long after Picasso’s death in 1973, a Parisian businessman was on vacation in Mougins. He saw the signed sidewalk and made enquiries to the local town council as to the availability of the work. Lengthy negotiations ensued, and eventually a price (hitherto undisclosed) was agreed upon. The businessman agreed to foot the bill for the removal and transportation of the paving slab. The council would replace it.
Two weeks after the sale of the pavement was finalised, the Mougins town council and the estate of Pablo Picasso were both sued by Thierry LaPorte, a labourer who had lived in the town in the 1960s. LaPorte claimed that the paving slab had been all his own work and that by signing the sidewalk, Picasso had effectively claimed authorship of a work not his own.
Because of this, the businessman cancelled the purchase of the pavement and sued the town council for dealing in art forgeries.
In the ensuing legal battles, art experts were called in to testify of the veracity of the signature on the work, and to certify whether the work was, in their opinion, a genuine Picasso. Most were noncommittal on the latter point, although several cited similarities of the pavement to some of Picasso’s lesser-known experiments in analytical cubism in 1911.
The results of the legal cases were watched closely throughout the country. The owner of a tree that Picasso had scratched his name into began a protracted letter-writing campaign that ended in the bankruptcy of three art dealers. One expert in Picasso’s African Period became so disillusioned with everything that he jumped in a lake and wouldn’t get out.
Eventually all court cases were dismissed, and everyone was told to go home and think about what they had done.
After the kerfuffle had de-commotioned, the businessman who tried to purchase the work went back to Paris on the 3:20 train via Lyon.
Theirry LaPorte began working as an expressionist artist in Cannes, gaining fame for being the man whose work was stolen by Picasso. His most famous work, ‘Large Grey Rectangle with Kerb #8’, sold for $3.2m in 1998.
Picasso’s sidewalk remains in Mougins to this day, although the signature has worn away to almost indecipherability. It doesn’t garner much attention these days, as interest in Picasso’s time in the town has waned, and people are more interested in the street around the corner where Damien Hurst’s dog defecated against a lamp-post.