Photo of the flier

The tale of the missing Picasso drawing in Philadelphia was perhaps too weird even for Philadelphia.

Billy Penn has retracted a story published yesterday that emerged after people posted photos of fliers around the city offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of a “missing Picasso drawing.”

It remains unclear if any such drawing exists. In two separate interviews and a series of emails Monday morning, a man claiming to be New York City-based art curator Steven Sergiovanni told Billy Penn that an unidentified client had shipped a 1920 charcoal drawing by Pablo Picasso to Philadelphia from Greenwich, Connecticut, in mid-April, and that it had gotten lost in transit.

The real mystery was that the man who claimed to be Steven Sergiovanni — a unique name for which public records list just one match in New York City — was an imposter.

“This is so bizarre,” the real Sergiovanni said, in a Tuesday phone call. “I can’t imagine why someone would do that.”

Sergiovanni said he works with emerging artists in New York, not with resold works from legacy artists like Picasso. To his knowledge, he’s also the only Steven Sergiovanni in the country, outside of his family.

In two phone interviews and multiple emails on Monday, the imposter relayed consistent stories to Billy Penn about his client’s plight. He said the charcoal drawing “was acquired directly from Picasso by a late relative” of the client, and that they had hired private investigators to track down the piece due to its sentimental value, among other specific details.

“It’s not just his, but it’s been a family object his whole life. It’s a 12-by-18 drawing, charcoal on newsprint,” the imposter added, providing a high-resolution piece that resembled Picasso’s work from the Cubist period.

At no point during the interviews did core details change in the story. The imposter noted he had not reported the item stolen to law enforcement agencies, like the Philadelphia Police Department or the FBI’s art crime division, which investigates criminal activity around cultural property.

Why would someone cover the city with posters looking for a supposed Picasso and try to spread the story by impersonating a real curator?

The provenance of the image of the drawing as printed on fliers remains unclear. Reverse image searches online did not yield any exact matches. The late art historian Christian Zervos catalogued more than 16,000 of Picasso’s works throughout his career, and others are still being authenticated.

Jeffrey Fuller, an art dealer in Philadelphia, said the supposed Picasso was suspect. The 12×18 size drawing would have been unusual for the time, and unlikely that Picasso would be working on newsprint, as the imposter originally indicated.

“This is not Picasso — this is not anybody who draws a lot,” Fuller said, reviewing the image. ” If I saw that in a store with a number, I’d say no, not right. But I’m not the world expert, I could be wrong.”

Megan Latona, logistics manager at the Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia, said forgeries and false claims of missing art are common in the art world. But impersonating a curator to make a spurious claim seemed beyond her.

“It seems like insurance fraud, unless this guy is a weirdo,” Latona said. “The real question is: why? Why would they do this? If it’s not for insurance fraud, then there’s really no other reason.”

Attempts to reach the fake Sergiovanni again via phone and email were not successful.

Statement from editor Danya Henninger:

Billy Penn is retracting the article published May 3, 2021, titled “A rare Picasso drawing sent to Philadelphia has gone missing.” The main source named was not the person they claimed to be. The article did not meet the standards we try hard to achieve with the many important stories we tell on a daily basis. As editor, the fault rests with me, and I apologize to all readers for the error.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...