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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More on the Nice Thefts

Today Molly Moore of the Washington Post has more details on Sunday’s theft of four works in Nice. Traditionally most French museums are free on the first Sunday of the month, and such was the case on Sunday. The thieves ordered the guards to lie down on the floor at gunpoint. They stuffed the 4 works by Monet, Sisley, and Bruegel in their bags and left–two on a motorcycle and three in a car. It seems they were after a fifth work but left it behind because they couldn’t fit it in their bag. The works by Monet and Sisley were on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. One of the works taken is pictured above, Jan Bruegel the Elder’s Allegory of the Earth

Patricia Grimaud, the deputy curator said “Who could expect to be held up in broad daylight like that?… They were really bold and quick, it took them only 10 minutes. I can’t find the right words to describe what they did.”

Moore rightly points out that “it has become virtually impossible to sell the better-known stolen pieces on the public art market.” But why steal the works if there is no market? Speculation abounds that there must be some kind of market motivating these thefts. It could be a real-life Dr. No, organized criminals could be using the works as collateral, they may be hoping to ransom the works back, or the thieves may not have known how difficult the works are to sell.

As I said yesterday, the Monet and Sisley paintings had been stolen in 1999 and quickly recovered. The NY Times reports the Sisley may have been stolen in 1978 as well. Perhaps the Musee des beaux artes in Nice has some security problems?

Unfortunately the criminal and civil law does a poor job of preventing art theft. The risk of jail time is much lower than for other crimes like kidnapping or other armed robberies. The cost/benefit calculus favors art thieves in many cases as works by important artists will remain extremely valuable and there is no special legal status for important artworks. The law looks on them just like any other commodity.

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Theft of 4 Works in Nice

On Sunday five men stole four important works from the Cheret Museum of Fine Arts in Nice. The works are:

  1. Claude Monet, Cliffs at Dieppe (1897)
  2. Alfred Sisley, Lane lined with poplars near Moret (1890)
  3. Jan Breugel, Allegory of Water (17th Century)
  4. Jan Breugel, Allegory of Earth (17th Century)

The first two works were stolen and quickly recovered in 1998. The then curator was implicated in the theft. This image is from the 1998 BBC story outlining the theft and recovery. Entry to this museum was free on the Sunday, and the men threatened the museum staff before leaving in a motorcycle and a car. As one would expect, the Police in Nice are speculating that the works have been stolen to order as the high profile of these works and the artists would make a good-faith sale near impossible.

(correction: It’s Claude Monet, not Money as I typed incorrectly earlier today.)

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