In spite of the image created by Hollywood, most art theft isn’t perpetrated by a suave and sophisticated criminal whose taste runs to the great masters. To the contrary, those involved are simply opportunists drawn to museums and collections by easy access to soft targets, the very high value, and the stolen art’s ease of movement and disposal.
It’s a well-established procedure. Most purloined art quickly goes to a broker, who pays the thief about five percent of its actual value. He, in turn, resells it to a middleman for twice that amount. At that point, the item is too hot to move. So the middleman has to be prepared to keep it until the time is right to stage an underground auction, which could be in ten or more years. Later, a dealer enters the picture, buying the piece for perhaps half of what it was worth when stolen. Once again, a lot of time may pass before it’s safe for him to bring it to auction, where he can hope to get full price for his investment.
At lunchtime on August 5, 2007, thieves dressed in blue overalls and ski masks burst into the poorly guarded Musée des Beaux Arts in Nice, France. The audacity and brashness of their daring midday heist made headlines around the world. And the aftermath – a journey through the murky world of underground art dealing – had all the twists and turns of classic American cinema, as they made their way from the South of France to coastal Spain and eventually all the way to the South Florida suburbs.
One man brandished an automatic weapon. Police would later identify him as Pierre Noël-Dumarais, a 60-year-old escaped felon with a long record. He forced employees and patrons to lie on the floor.
With him were Patrice Lhomme, an ex-boxer, Patrick Chelelekian, a drug dealer from Marseille, and two more accomplices.
While Noël-Dumarais kept his eye on the door and the front desk, the others moved quickly through two floors of rooms filled with four centuries of artwork inspired by the beauty of the French Riviera.
Having cased the museum for weeks, the thieves knew what they were after. Downstairs, they went right for the works of Jan Brueghel the Elder, whose paintings “Allegory of Water” and “Allegory of Earth” were created in the early 17th century. Ripping those from the wall, they stuffed them into garbage bags. Meanwhile, on the upper level, others did the same with Alfred Sisley’s “The Lane of Poplars at Moret” and “Cliffs near Dieppe” by Claude Monet.
The thieves pried a second Sisley painting loose, but it was too big for the bag and they left it on the floor.
The five men left the same way they came in. Two of them sped off on a motorcycle, and the rest made their escape in a blue Peugeot van. The whole operation took less than five minutes, and they had made off with over six million dollars worth of art.
Authorities had little to go on. There were no cameras in the building. André Barthe, Nice’s deputy mayor in charge of culture, said the staff were “more adapted to the task than cameras.”
“With cameras, you cut the wires, you disguise your appearance, as the robbers did; it’s not the ideal solution. I prefer an extra guard to an extra camera,” he told French radio. “Alarm or not, when you are robbed you cannot do anything. We will however make a point of looking at security in the city’s museums.”
The art theft sparked one of the largest international operations ever. The French National Police and France’s Central Office for the Fight Against Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC) worked with the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The combined forces were soon on the trail of Lhomme and Chelelekian and the gang in Europe. Spanish police got involved when the operation moved to Barcelona.
The key to solving the crime turned out to be a man named Bernard Jean Ternus, who had a police record in France dating back to 1966, when he was 13. It included breaking and entering, theft, armed robbery, possession of stolen goods, destruction of a vehicle and assault with a deadly weapon.
One day he received a call from his friend, Patrick Chelelekian, asking if he knew anyone who might want to buy stolen artwork. Ternus had rented a home with his wife and young children in a quiet, middle-income South Florida neighborhood. He felt comfortable there and had met a lot of wealthy people. So he began contacting art dealers to mention that he wanted to sell some impressionist paintings.
Word soon reached a pair of local drug traffickers, who agreed to connect him with a broker in Philadelphia who had sold them black market art. Of course, they wanted a cut of the proceeds.
Before long, Ternus was meeting with a gentleman named Bob, who had researched the insurance values of the paintings and pointed out that the recent nature of the theft meant they would be worth considerably less. Ternus was anxious to complete the transaction, because the thieves were pressuring him.
Bob offered $100,000 for the five paintings, saying he’d have a hard time finding a buyer for artwork that well-known. Ternus didn’t think it was a good price but agreed to relay the offer.
By now, the thieves had grown wary. They told the Americans that if they didn’t come to Europe to meet in person, the deal was off. They were also becoming suspicious of Ternus himself and were wondering what he might have gotten them into. It was clear to them that the time they spent casing the museum and the risk involved with the armed robbery and carrying the paintings out in broad daylight was worth millions.
Five months had passed since the art heist, and finally a deal was about to be done at a hotel in Barcelona. The South Florida drug traffickers were waiting in the room when Bob and Chelekekian arrived.
They begin with a discussion of the price. Chelelekian said that he’d heard the pitiful $100,000 offer and that the number should be at least 3 million euros (about $4.7 million).
For “security purposes,” he says, they would sell the paintings only two at a time for $1.5 million each. If there were a problem with the first transaction, the Monet and the Sisley would be kept as bargaining chips for reduced sentences.
Chelelekian had a friend in the States who could accept the payment. At the same time, the thieves would hand over the paintings.
But Bob said he was having second thoughts and told Chelelekian he wasn’t sure he could find a buyer at that unrealistic price. He said he had a phone call to make and asked both men to go out in the hall. When he brought them back, he said he has a possible buyer in America.
Unfortunately for Ternus and the art thieves, “Bob” was Special Agent Robert Wittman, the FBI’s foremost art expert. And the two “drug traffickers” were undercover agents as well.Taking advantage of the impatient thieves’ newly expressed desire to have the entire deal take place in Europe, they arranged for a transfer of cash and artwork in Marseilles.
On June 4, 2008, the criminals and five of their associates walked into a carefully laid trap. All of them were arrested, and the four paintings were recovered. A few hours later, Ternus was taken into custody as well.
Now retired, “Bob” Wittman recovered around $300 million-worth of stolen art and objects in his 20-year career, including Geronimo’s war bonnet, one of the original 14 copies of the US Bill of Rights, and works by Rembrandt, Rodin and Rockwell.