• France's news in English

Art thieves stung by FBI on trial in France

AFP · 28 Nov 2011, 17:11

Published: 28 Nov 2011 17:11 GMT+01:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Five art thieves arrested in an FBI sting operation went on trial on Monday for the brazen theft from a museum on the French Riviera of four paintings by Monet, Sisley and Brueghel.

The five were detained in 2008 following an operation involving a famed FBI art crimes investigator, Robert Wittman, but their lawyers claim they were enticed by the agency into committing the crime.

The works, valued at €20 million ($27 million), were stolen in August 2007 from the Musee des Beaux-Arts Jules Cheret in Nice in a heist that saw the thieves threaten staff, stuff the paintings into bags and escape in under five minutes.

Two of the men, Pierre-Noel Dumarais, 64, and Patrick Chelelekian, 59, are accused of having organised the heist with their alleged accomplices, Patrice Lhomme, 46, Gregory Moullec, 41, and Lionel Ritter, 39.

The five admitted at the trial in southern France on Monday to having carried out the robbery but denied accusations from museum staff that they were armed.

They face between 30 years and life in prison if convicted on the charges of organised armed robbery and criminal association. A verdict is expected on Friday.

The paintings -- "Cliffs Near Dieppe" by Claude Monet; "The Lane of Poplars at Moret" by Alfred Sisley; and "Allegory of Water" and "Allegory of Earth" by Jan Brueghel the Elder -- were recovered in a sting organised by the FBI and French police in June 2008.

The paintings were allegedly stolen on the orders of a French citizen living in Florida, Bernard Jean Ternus, who pleaded guilty in a US court in 2008 to conspiring to sell the art works. He was sentenced to five years and two months in prison.

Ternus allegedly told the thieves he had buyers lined up to pay three million euros for the paintings, which because of their fame would have been difficult to unload on the black market.

Ternus arranged for the thieves to meet the buyers in the southern French port city of Marseille but was unaware that he had been dealing with undercover French police and FBI agents reportedly working for Wittman, then the FBI's top art crimes investigator.

The five were arrested after finalising the deal and Ternus was detained in Florida.

The suspects' lawyers allege that Wittman, who last year published a book on his exploits entitled "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures", effectively ordered the heist to infiltrate European art crime gangs.

Story continues below…

Wittman was working undercover at the time on the world's biggest unsolved art crime -- the 1990 theft of works worth an estimated $500 million by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet and other artists from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

"It is a shame that (FBI) agents, in order to recover paintings stolen on their territory, are making orders that... lead to other thefts on French territory," said Ludovic Depatureaux, a lawyer for Dumarais.

Both the Monet and Sisley paintings had previously been stolen from the same museum in 1998 when thieves were said to have broken into the curator's home and forced him to drive to and let them into the premises.

But they were recovered a week later and the curator subsequently pleaded guilty to having masterminded the theft.

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France to clear 'Jungle' migrant camp Monday
Migrants will be bussed from the camp to some 300 temporary accommodation centres around France. Photo: Denis Charlet/ AFP

The "Jungle" migrant camp on France's northern coast will be cleared of its residents on Monday before being demolished, authorities said Friday.

How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Paris thieves use tear gas to steal €500,000 of watches
Photo: AFP

The thieves pretended to be couriers then threatened staff with tear gas to get the watches.

Bataclan survivor recounts attack in chilling drawings
Photo: BFMTV screengrab

One survivor has recounted the horrific night through illustrations.

Anger among French police grows as Hollande vows talks
French police demonstrate on the Champs Elysées. Photo: AFP

A fourth night of protests shows government efforts to ease anger among French police have been fruitless.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available