February 6, 2013

Portrait of a Museum Theft Case: The 2007 Robbery of the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice

Jan Brueghel the Elder's
 "Allegorie de la terre"
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Last night after looking up stolen snuffboxes on INTERPOL's Works of Art database, I curiously looked up Recovered Items and found a pair of paintings by Brueghel, Allegorie de la terre and Allegorie de l'eau, recovered in Marseille in June 2008. INTERPOL provides thumbnail images of the paintings; descriptions (in this case, for example, exterior scene with figures and animals, not religious); measurements; and the date of recovery. The rest of the information can be found from articles published online:


Brueghel's "Allegorie de l'eau"
On August 5, 2007, at about 1 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, five masked thieves with weapons entered the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice and left five minutes later with the two paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder and two Impressionist works: Claude Monet’s 1897 “Cliffs Near Dieppe” and Alfred Sisley’s 1890 “Lane of Poplars at Moret-sur-Loing” ("Four Masterpieces Stolen from French Museum", The New York Times, August 7, 2007).

Alfred Sisley's "Lane of Poplars at Moret"
Ten months later, French police recovered the four paintings in Marseilles and detained more than 10 people in Nice and Marseilles ("French police recover stolen art by Monet, Brueghel", Reuters, June 4, 2008).  The sting operation had involved undercover FBI Agent Robert Wittman posing as an American art dealer ready to purchase the stolen art for more than $4 million in cash ("From the Art World to the Underworld", Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2008).  In Wittman's memoir Priceless (Crown Publishers, New York, 2010), the then senior investigator of the FBI's Art Crime Team says that as of March 2007 he had "spent nine painstaking months undercover" as "some sort of shady American art dealer" trying to recover the paintings stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

In a Factual Proffer (United States v. Bernard Jean Ternus), the defendant, in an effort to cut a deal with prosecutors and avoid a trial, admits that from August 2007 to June 2008 he and his "co-conspirators" "knowing that the Nice paintings had been stolen" "brokered the sale" of the four works to undercover FBI and French National Police agents (the legal statement details those negotiations).  When the Nice paintings were recovered in Marseilles, Ternus was arrested in Florida. On July 8, Ternus pleaded guilty to "conspiring to transport in interstate and foreign commerce four stolen paintings knowing that they were stolen":
According to plea documents, on Jan. 19, 2008, Ternus met in Barcelona with undercover FBI agents and with an unindicted co-conspirator. At the meeting, Ternus and his unindicted co-conspirator negotiated a two-part transaction with the undercover FBI agents. They would sell all four stolen paintings to the undercover agents for a total of 3 million Euros. Two of the paintings would be transferred in exchange for 1.5 million Euros, and the remaining two paintings would be transferred on a separate date for 1.5 million Euros. According to information entered at court, the defendant and his unindicted co-conspirator structured the two-part transaction to retain leverage with law enforcement in the event anyone was arrested upon the sale of the first two paintings. If this occurred, they intended to use the remaining two paintings to bargain for the release of anyone who was arrested. (Department of Justice)
Ternus had a criminal history:
In addition to the conspiracy charge, Ternus also pleaded guilty to a visa fraud charge before U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia A. Altonaga in Miami. During the plea, Ternus admitted that he fraudulently concealed his French criminal history to obtain a U.S. visa, which he then used to enter and remain in the United States. During the plea, Ternus admitted that, prior to applying for his U.S. visa, he had been arrested in France on at least seven separate occasions, and that he had been convicted in France of assault with a deadly weapon. Ternus also admitted that he knew the visa he obtained and used had been procured by falsely claiming to have no French criminal history. (Department of Justice)
In this April 2009 article by Michael J. Mooney of The Broward Palm Beach New Times, "Trail ends in Florida",  the Nice museum thieves are identified as Pierre Noël-Dumarais "an escaped felon with a long record"; a former boxer; an "Armenian drug dealer living in Marseilles"; and two others.  Mooney tells of a fifth painting targeted in the theft but left on the floor when it couldn't fit into the bag for stolen loot.  According to Mooney, Ternus, living in Florida, got involved in brokering the sale of the Nice paintings via the Armenian drug dealer two months after the theft.  Ternus, according to Mooney, came to the dubious art broker from Philadelphia (Wittman) through local drug traffickers involved in selling cocaine from Colombia. In September 2008, Ternus was sentenced to five years in prison at the Federal Detention Center in Miami.

In March 2010, Ternus' conviction was affirmed ("Art thief appeals verdict") by the Eleventh Circuit:
Ternus challenges his conviction, arguing that the foreign commerce element in 18 U.S.C. § 2314 is “jurisdictional.” He contends that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over his case because there was insufficient evidence in the record that he conspired to transport the stolen paintings in foreign commerce. Ternus’ guilty plea waived all non-jurisdictional defects in the proceedings against him.

In November 2011, the seven men on trial in Aix-en-Provenance claimed that the FBI had instructed them to steal the four paintings from the museum in Nice four years earlier.  A few days later, the French court passed out sentences of two to nine years to the guilty (Noël-Dumarais, who had used a weapon in the heist, received the longer term).

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