Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Monday, November 28, 2011

stolen Art Watch, Nuremberg Defence, Best Form Of Attack

'The FBI told us to do it!' Seven robbers go on trial accused of £20 million art heist

Art thieves stung by FBI on trial in France

Five art thieves arrested in an FBI sting operation went on trial today 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 euros ($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.

The FBI was implicated in a £20 million art theft today - as seven armed robbers went on trial accused of stealing a Monet, a Sisley and two Breughels.

All face up to 30 years in prison following the heist at the Beaux Arts museum in Nice, on the French Riviera, in August 2007.

Now their high-profile trial in nearby Aix-en-Provence is set to throw light on the apparent links between the American crime-fighting organisation and those it tries to bring to justice.

Pierre-Noel Dumarais, the 64-year-old leader of the gang who broke into the gallery dressed as cleaners, insists they were all 'persuaded' by the FBI to do so.

He admits that he brandished a Colt 45 pistol and hand-grenades at staff as he stole 'Allegory of Water' and 'Allegory of Earth' by Breughel, as well as Alfred Sisley's 'Avenue of Poplars at Moret' and Claude Monet's 'Cliffs Near Dieppe'.

Their combined worth was at least £20 million.

But Ludovic Depatureaux, for Dumarais, insisted that 'the operation only went well because the museum was not protected at all' with CCTV or armed guards.

Defence counsel argues that Robert K Wittman, a 55-year-old FBI special agent from Miami working undercover as a corrupt art dealer called 'Bob Clay', effectively 'ordered' the heist because he wanted to infiltrate art crime gangs working across France.

His ultimate aim was to recover a Vermeer and two Rembrandts stolen from a museum in Boston, USA, in 1990 .

Wittman thought Dumarais might lead him to 'the Dutch paintings', but only if he remained convinced that he was a gangster who approved of stealing paintings to order, said Depatureaux.

Mr Depatureaux said: 'Wittman thought that he would infiltrate those who stole or still hold the Vermeer and Rembrandt. The Nice heist was just collateral damage.'

The barrister added: 'My client's modus operandi did not start from the premise: let's steal some paintings then find a buyer. They were a bunch of amateurish stooges some of whom only met on the day of the heist.

'These canvasses disappeared in order to recover two key paintings belonging to U.S. heritage. I'm not sure that the U.S. would appreciate it if French agents acted likewise.'

Calling for the charges to be dropped, Mr Depatureaux said gang members were the victims of 'police provocation'.

But Mr Wittman said: 'In the U.S., we law enforcement officers used to call that 'throwing fecal matter against the wall and seeing what would stick'.

'I don't think anything I did 'encouraged' anyone to obtain Chechen hand grenades and semi automatic pistols in order to commit armed robbery. It is a fanciful defence at best, at worst, it is a defence of desperation used only when criminals are caught.'

Denying that the gang members were amateurs, Mr Wittman said: 'They were good criminals, but terrible businessmen.'

Mr Wittman, now retired, recovered around £200 million worth of stolen art during his career, including Geronimo's war bonnet, an original copy of the U.S. Bill of Rights, and works by Rembrandt, Rodin and Rockwell.

His ultimate aim has always been to recover the Vermeer, two Rembrandts and five sketches by Degas worth £350 million stolen from Boston and remaing one of the art world’s most enduring unsolved crimes.

The latest case in which he is involved in Aix, which is expected to end on Friday, continues.

The defendants deny a charge of ‘armed robbery and possession of stolen goods committed by an organized gang’, the court heard.

All of the paintings were recovered with the help of the FBI 10 months after the heist, which took less than five minutes, French police admitted in court.

It was Bernard Ternus, a Frechman based in Miami, who first told the gang that U.S. criminal buyers were interested in old master paintings.

In fact, the buyers were the FBI and trying to recover the works stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990.

It was while Ternus was trying to sell the Nice paintings to Wittman at a ‘knock down’ price of £2.7 million pounds, that he was arrested and the works recovered

Ternus is already serving a five year, two month sentence in Miami for his part in the negotiations to sell stolen art.

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