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Art thieves stung by FBI on trial in France

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.

Art thieves stung by FBI on trial in France
Allegory of Water by Jan 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.

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.

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ARCHITECTURE

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles

Rising high beyond an ancient Roman arena in Arles, a tall, twisted tower created by Frank Gehry shimmers in the sun, the latest futuristic addition to this southern French city known for its World Heritage sites.

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles
Gehry's Luma Tower opens in Arles, France. Photo: H I / Pixabay

The tower, which opens to the public on Saturday, is the flagship attraction of a new “creative campus” conceived by the Swiss Luma arts foundation that wants to offer artists a space to create, collaborate and showcase their work.

Gehry, the 92-year-old brain behind Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrapped 11,000 stainless steel panels around his tower above a huge glass round base.

It will house contemporary art exhibitions, a library, and offices, while the Luma Arles campus as a whole will host conferences and live performances.

From a distance, the structure reflects the changing lights of this town that inspired Van Gogh, capturing the whiteness of the limestone Alpilles mountain range nearby which glows a fierce orange when the sun sets.

Mustapha Bouhayati, the head of Luma Arles, says the town is no stranger to
imposing monuments; its ancient Roman arena and theatre have long drawn the
crowds.

The tower is just the latest addition, he says. “We’re building the heritage of tomorrow.”

Luma Arles spreads out over a huge former industrial wasteland.

Maja Hoffmann, a Swiss patron of the arts who created the foundation, says
the site took seven years to build and many more years to conceive.

Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Aside from the tower, Luma Arles also has exhibition and performance spaces in former industrial buildings, a phosphorescent skatepark created by South Korean artist Koo Jeong A and a sprawling public park conceived by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

‘Arles chose me’

The wealthy great-granddaughter of a founder of Swiss drug giant Roche, Hoffmann has for years been involved in the world of contemporary art, like her grandmother before her.

A documentary producer and arts collector, she owns photos by Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and says she hung out with Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York.

Her foundation’s stated aim is to promote artists and their work, with a special interest in environmental issues, human rights, education and culture.

She refuses to answer a question on how much the project in Arles cost. But as to why she chose the 53,000-strong town, Hoffmann responds: “I did not choose Arles, Arles chose me.”

She moved there as a baby when her father Luc Hoffmann, who co-founded WWF,
created a reserve to preserve the biodiversity of the Camargue, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone river delta known for its pink flamingos.

The tower reflects that, with Camargue salt used as mural panels and the
delta’s algae as textile dye.

Hoffmann says she wants her project to attract more visitors in the winter, in a town where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some 190 people will be working at the Luma project over the summer, Bouhayati says, adding that Hoffman has created an “ecosystem for creation”.

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