A secret hoard of 271 unknown works by Pablo Picasso has been uncovered in the garage of a retired electrician and his wife, who say they were gifts for jobs well done.

However Picasso’s descendants said the works were stolen from the artist’s studio and have launched legal action against unnamed persons for theft.

The treasure trove of drawings, sketches, lithographs and cubist collages is estimated to be worth more than €60m ($79m), and contains works from between 1900 and 1932. First revealed in the French daily Libération, the collection contains nine collages estimated at some €40m, as well as pieces from Picasso’s blue period, 14 preliminary sketches of his “Three Graces”, and portraits of his first wife, Olga.

Pierre le Guennec, 71, said he was given the works by Picasso’s second wife, having worked for the artist from 1970 and then for Jacqueline Picasso after her husband’s death in 1973 until 1986. His job took him to several of the couple’s residences, where works were stored but Mr Le Guennec denies any wrongdoing.

“Madame gave them to me, surely because they [sic] were pleased with my service,” he told Europe 1 radio from his modest house in the village of Mouans-Sartroux.

The collection has since been stored in a box in the Le Guennec garage gathering dust until September when the couple decided due to ill-health and old age to verify its authenticity with the artist’s descendants. Mr Le Guennec said he had not wanted his own children to discover the collection and suffer questioning over its origins after his death. The couple had not sold the works earlier “out of love”, Mrs Le Guennec added.

However, Claude Picasso, who manages his father’s estate through the Picasso Administration, said it was impossible for his father to have given away such a volume of work, all from the same period.

“To give so much does not make sense. Pablo Picasso was generous it is true but he dated signed and dedicated his gifts,” whereas none of the works in the Le Guennec collection bore these traits, he told Libération.

French police have confiscated the collection and an inquiry is under way that could last months.

Jean-Jacques Neuer, lawyer to the Picasso family, said the priority had been to protect the works from disappearing before their origins could be established. “We needed rapid action to safeguard these works,” he said.

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