Claude Picasso, estranged son of the artist who ended up controlling the Picasso estate – obituary

After his mother’s incendiary memoir, Picasso told him ‘I wish you were dead,’ but Claude won out over the battling heirs to run the empire

Seven-year-old Claude with his father Pablo Picasso in 1954, at a bullfight in the south of France
Seven-year-old Claude with his father Pablo Picasso in 1954, at a bullfight in the south of France Credit: JEAN MEUNIER

Claude Picasso, who has died aged 76, was the son of Pablo Picasso by the artist Françoise Gilot; his life was defined by legal wrangles, first to be established in law as one of Picasso’s four children, and heir to the richest painter in history; then, as legal administrator of his father’s estate, seeing off the misuse of the Picasso brand while controversially selling the rights to his father’s signature for Citroën to put on a minivan.

Claude Pierre-Paul Gilot was born in Paris on May 15 1947, Picasso having told Françoise Gilot, who was 40 years his junior: “You are developed only on the intellectual level. Everywhere else you are retarded. You won’t know what it means to be a woman until you have a child.”

Françoise Gilot was far more ambitious than Picasso’s other mistresses. She let herself be talked into motherhood, but young Claude – named after Claude Gillot (1673-1722), the teacher of Watteau who painted harlequins – could only get her to open her studio door if he told her she was “better than Papa”. 

Eventually, she was forced to give up her afternoons to look after him when she realised that the cook had not been taking him to the beach, as indicated, but had been propping the baby up on a bistro bar, drinking herself senseless, then driving them home.

Pablo Picasso drawing with his son Claude, 1955 Credit: Bettmann

Picasso, on the other hand, was energised by Claude. He let the boy and his sister Paloma, born two years later, run unmolested through his studio with their dogs, and made Claude a little matador outfit, a bullfighter in his own idealised image. He felt a child-like clarity and spontaneity in their company, and got them to draw for him, made them little toys out of paper and pinched one of Claude’s toy cars for the head of his sculpture, Baboon and Young (1951). The boy was displeased. “You’re the son of the woman who says ‘no’,” Picasso once told him, exasperatedly.

The family lived in Vallauris, not far from Cannes. Paulo, Picasso’s son by his wife Olga, his former mistress Marie-Therese Walter and their daughter Maya came to stay often; for a while, their Cubist collage of a family seemed to work. But the reappearance of an old flame, the artist Geneviève Laporte, soured the mood. In 1953, Françoise Gilot became the only one of Picasso’s mistresses to leave him. Incensed, he told her: “You’ll be left with only the taste of ashes in your mouth. For you, reality is finished.”

Françoise Gilot with Claude in 1950, on the beach at Golfe-Juan Credit: Gamma-Rapho

But Picasso let Claude and Paloma, both at the Ecole Alsacienne in Paris, spend every holiday with him, always commandeering at least one piece of clothing from Claude’s suitcase, as if it were a magic token that could keep him young. He also did all he could, in deference to their legally savvy mother’s wishes, to have them recognised as his children in law (a tricky business, as they had been born in adultery). In 1955 he became their legal guardian, and in 1961 the Minister of Justice granted his official application that they should bear his name.

In 1964, however, Françoise Gilot published her memoir, Life with Picasso. He sued and lost – and cut off Claude and Paloma in revenge. Claude only saw his father once more, a few years later, in a Cannes street, where Picasso reportedly told him: “I am old and you are young. I wish you were dead.”

Françoise Gilot (centre) with her children Paloma and Claude Picasso, 1966 Credit: David Cairns

The estranged Claude, by then 17, left France to study English at Bell’s Language School in Cambridge, where he befriended Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and David Gilmour, who came to stay with him at Françoise Gilot’s farmhouse near St Tropez in the summer of 1965.

Claude then got a job in New York as Richard Avedon’s assistant, often printing for 24 hours straight when the fashion shows were on, and once passing out in the fumes. He christened Avedon’s experimental monster colour-processing machine “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” because “it would go on the fritz six times out of 10 and we would have to start over”. Combative and cocky, he told the pop star Donovan, who turned up late for an Avedon sitting, “You know, it’s really rather irresponsible of you to put drug-taking first.”

His beauty and famous surname opened doors – he interviewed Andy Warhol about his cookie jar collection and befriended Willem de Kooning, Princess Diane von Furstenberg and Lee Krasner – but he would turn down dinner invitations if they were not smart enough. (“When you can’t afford to buy a Picasso, you invite one to dinner,” he said.) 

To save money, he lived in a flophouse above the Copacabana, then moved in with his girlfriend, the model Carole Mallory, while he eked out a living as a freelance photographer for Life, French Vogue, House & Garden and Brides. He wanted to be a director, and enrolled at the Actor’s Studio, later making a documentary about the artist Richard Serra.

Pablo Picasso with Claude and, left, the singer Yolanda at Vallauris, 1954 Credit: AFP

His bohemian life came to an end in 1973, when the 91-year-old Picasso died. He was banned from the funeral, but in anticipation of inheriting his fortune, he proposed to Carole, and used her life savings to rent a massive apartment in New York and another in Paris. But the superstitious artist had insisted on dying intestate, so the legal battle dragged on for seven years, with 60 separate meetings between the heirs: Jacqueline, Picasso’s legitimate son Paulo (who soon died of cirrhosis, leaving another succession battle between his descendants), Maya, Claude and Paloma.

Claude cut off his androgynous hair and became increasingly plutocratic and imperious; he started controlling what clothes his fiancée bought with her own money and objected (ironically) to her taking a part in The Stepford Wives, until she left him. When she asked for some of her money back, he threw a bundle of cash at her, with an uncharitable suggestion for where she might put it.

The settlement of Picasso’s estate was finally announced in 1980. L’Express ran the splash: “1,251,673,200 new francs: The Inheritance of the Century” (around $250 million), but this was based on an extremely conservative estimate of the artworks’ value; the true figure was over a billion dollars. Claude got somewhere between one eighth or one sixth of the estate (accounts vary), minus inheritance tax.

Claude Picasso in 1989 Credit: Frederic REGLAIN

The soap opera was far from over. A rash of Picasso products soon appeared across America, all based on works owned by Marina Picasso, daughter of the late Paulo; it became apparent that she had secretly sold the reproduction rights to the works she personally owned, even though the heirs had agreed that reproduction rights would be owned jointly. A lawsuit followed.

Then in 1988, Claude fell out with his half-sister Maya. She complained that SPADEM, the copyright agency employed by the estate to license reproductions and prosecute pirates, was too slow, and unilaterally withdrew from it. Another lawsuit ensued, the unexpected result of which was that, in 1989, a French court named Claude legal administrator of the entire Picasso estate, to streamline the business.

In 1995, he took the business of licensing reproductions and merchandise in-house, founding the Picasso Administration (under his control), which took a much more aggressive stance on pirates than (the now defunct) SPADEM, spending $1 million a year on lawsuits.

By the 1990s, Picasso had become a brand on a par with Disney or Nike – instantly recognisable, and used illegally to sell anything from brassieres in America to loo paper in Taiwan. Claude’s view was that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. An official line of goods was launched – blouses, bathtowels, teacups and ashtrays – hoping to outcompete the counterfeits. There was even a Picasso restaurant at a Las Vegas casino, the Bellagio, for which Claude personally designed the carpets.

Claude Picasso in front of Picasso's 1948 painting Claude in the Arms of His Mother Credit: ullstein bild

Rumblings from the other heirs about “vulgar cheapening” reached a head in 1998, when the Citroën Xsara Picasso was unveiled, bearing the artist’s signature on both sides. The deal – which reportedly netted the Picasso estate $20 million, plus annual royalties – was the brainchild of Maya’s son Olivier Picasso Widmaier, who defended it by citing Roland Barthes: “the automobile has almost become the equivalent of the Gothic cathedrals…” 

Others were less convinced. Henri Cartier-Bresson accused Claude of betraying his father’s genius and, more questionably, his communist principles, while Marina told the press: “I cannot tolerate the name of my grandfather being used to sell something so banal as a car.” It must have been little consolation that the Citroën Xsara Picasso went on to become Europe’s bestselling mid-sized minivan.

Another problem was authentication. There was no catalogue raisonné: “We’d have to rent the Empire State Building to house all the works,” Claude Picasso had realised in 1980, and more kept coming to light – most spectacularly, in 2010, a trove of 200 in the garage of Picasso’s handyman. Although Claude was legal administrator of the estate, all the heirs still had, under French law, “droit moral” to authenticate any new works. 

They established a committee, but in 1993, Maya and Claude started issuing separate (and occasionally conflicting) certifications. Dealers would wait on tenterhooks, for months, for their double-stamp; the intuitive Maya, in particular, was slow (“I’m like Hercule Poirot,” she said). In 2012, all the heirs minus Maya issued a statement according Claude sole authority on authentications.

Claude Picasso in 1986, in front of an artwork by his father Credit: Gamma-Rapho

From then on, he reigned supreme, passing judgment on what counted as a Picasso, and what could be sold in his name. Stocky, dark-eyed and simian, he looked uncannily like the father who had shunned him, but to whose memory he gave his working life. “I could have had a much worse fate,” he said. “I could have been the son of a plumber – or of a terrifically bad painter.”

His mother Françoise Gilot survived until June this year, dying at the age of 101; last month, his sister Paloma succeeded him as head of the Picasso estate.

Claude Picasso took part in several vintage car races a year, and once drove a 1964 Mercedes 230SL most of the way around the world, until he crashed it in Montana.

He married, first, in 1969, Sara Lavner, a therapist; secondly, in 1979, Sydney Russel, an archaeologist and art writer; he is survived by his third wife Sylvie (née Vautier) and two sons.

Claude Picasso, born May 15 1947, died August 24 2023