French Man Pleads Guilty to Art Theft Conspiracy

Last week the US Department of Justice issued a press release announcing a Frenchman named Bernard Jean Ternus pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell four works of art stolen last August from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nice, France.

According to the release, Ternus and another man attempted to sell two of the works to undercover agents in Barcelona, Spain for three million euros. They sold two works, and attempted to keep the other two as leverage in case they got arrested. This plan revealed its flaws in June though when Ternus’ co-conspirators were arrested in Southern France when they attempted to exchange the final two works.

Ternus was arrested by FBI and ICE agents in Florida, and its likely a condition of his plea agreement was to give testimony about the thefts themselves, which should aid French authorities in their prosecution of the co-conspirators in Europe.

The arrests are a very good thing, but it will be interesting to see what Ternus’ and his conspirators prison sentances will be, as art theft is typically not given long prison terms. Though the armed nature of the robbery may lead to harsher penalties for the actual thieves in Europe.

This is nonetheless a very good example of cooperation of Federal Agents and prosecutors, and their French and Spanish counterparts. Its a job very well done, and an indication why theft of these kind of high-profile works is very silly. I’ve included images of the recovered works from the press release below:

Cliffs Near Dieppe, 1897
Permanent loan, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice; © Musée d’Orsay, Paris Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926). Cliffs Near Dieppe, 1897. Oil on canvas. 65 x 100 cm (25 9/16 x 39 3/8 in.).
Allegory of Earth, ca. 1611
© Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568-1625) and Hendrik van Balen the Elder (Flemish, 1575-1632). Allegory of Earth, ca. 1611. Oil on panel. 53 x 94 cm
Allegory of Water, ca. 1611
©Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568-1625) and Hendrik van Balen the Elder (Flemish, 1575-1632). Allegory of Water, ca. 1611. Oil on panel. 53 x 94 cm
The Lane of Poplars at Moret, 1890
Permanent loan, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice; © Musée d’Orsay, Paris Alfred Sisley (French and British, 1839-1899). The Lane of Poplars at Moret, 1890. Oil on canvas. 76 x 96 cm (29 15/16 x 37 13/16 in.). (20 7/8 x 3)
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100 Antiquities Returned to Mexico

There is a report in the Dallas Morning news on the repatriation of 100 pre-Columbian objects to Mexico, many of which were of museum-quality.

A treasure-trove of about 100 artifacts, believed to be pre-Columbian, is on its way to Mexico, its presumed home, U.S. customs agents and Mexican diplomats said Tuesday.

Among the antiquities is a stone mask of a broad-featured man, which is believed to come from the Olmec civilization, the oldest in the Americas, and it dates as far back as 1000 BC, experts said. Other items include figurines in jadeite, precious stones symbolically linked to fertility for the people of ancient Mesoamerica and once valued more than gold.

“We’re so very happy about the return of these pieces,” said Eduardo Rea Falcón, the consul in charge for Mexico’s diplomatic post in Dallas. “It is unfortunate that through looting and robbing, these items fell into private hands.”

One of the most stunning pieces is the mask, Mr. Rea said.

But when the experts at Mexico’s National Institute for Anthropology and History unpack the goods, they may unravel far more significant mysteries, as authentication deepens, he said. “They may find something of incalculable value,” Mr. Rea said.

Equally mysterious is the trajectory of the smuggled artifacts into the Dallas vaults of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The goods represent several seizures in Texas and New Mexico, including an initial seizure in 2001, said Carlos Fontanez, a CBP spokesman in the Houston office.

But Mr. Fontanez gave few details to the whodunit tale. No one has been charged with smuggling the goods into the U.S., he said, though it is illegal to traffic in antiquities under U.S. law.

It’s an odd story, as there is no indication of how or under what circumstances these objects were seized. Dealing and importing these objects is of course illegal; one wonders why there was no arrest, and also why it took so long to return them to Mexico. One possible answer is the objects were being held for possible prosecution or criminal charges.

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Stolen Egyptian Antiquities Arrest

Edward Earle Johnson, aka “Dutch” has been arrested in Alabama and charged in Manhattan for wire fraud and selling stolen goods in connection with a 2002 theft from the Ma’adi Museum near Cairo in Egypt. Johnson is an active duty Chief Warrant Officer with the US Army, serving as a helicopter pilot.

In September of 2002 370 “pre-dynastic artifacts” were stolen from the museum, some dating to 3000 BC. Around 80 of those objects have been recovered by US authorities.

ABC News has a good overview of the story, with pictures, and has helpfully posted the unsealed complaint, sworn out by Senior Special Agent James McAndrew of the Homeland Security Department, specifically the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The ICE press release announcing the arrest yesterday is here.

An interesting question to ask here is whether Johnson used military ships or aircraft to somehow smuggle these objects back into the United States. That would be particularly troubling. That’s just speculation on my part at this point, but it seems like a potential way for him to get those object into the US.

It is also important to note I think that this arrest stems from a theft from a museum. These objects were excavated in an archaeological dig in the 1920’s-30’s, and had been in a state collection. One interesting aspect of the case which may come to light later is how McAndrew and the ICE discovered these thefts. Did a scrupulous dealer come forward? Did someone notice these objects for sale? Were these objects cataloged and documented by the Egyptian culture ministry?

It can be extremely difficult to track stolen antiquities generally even where they have been excavated and on display, however the problems grow increasingly acute when we consider looted and illegally excavated objects, which are new to the market.

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