The Trail From a $6 Million French Art Heist Ends in Suburban South Florida
Tourists stroll along the Promenade des Anglais. Tan bodies dot the beach. It's a peaceful Sunday afternoon, August 5, 2007, and Nice's wealthiest young partiers sip coffee at the Hotel Negresco, staring out into the sparkling blue waters of the Bay of Angels.
Two blocks away, a motorcycle and a blue Peugeot van pull up to the Musee des Beaux-Arts. Five men assemble by the steps. They wear athletic clothing with hoods and carry black bags. As they enter the peach-colored building, one man carries an automatic weapon. In a gruff voice, he yells at six patrons and a handful of museum employees.
"Down on the floor!" he commands in French.
French police reports will identify the man with the gun as Pierre Noël-Dumarais, a 60-year-old escaped felon with a long record. With him are Patrice Lhomme, a tall, broad-shouldered, 45-year-old former boxer with flowing blond hair; Patrick Chelelekian, a slim Armenian drug dealer living in Marseille; and two others. Noël-Dumarais watches the door and the front desk, pointing his gun at the people on the floor. The other men split up — two down a long hall and two up the marble staircase. They move quickly through the rooms of what was originally a palace when it was built in the late 1870s. Converted into a museum in 1925, the building houses four centuries of work created by artists inspired by the beauty of the French Riviera.
This daring, mid-day heist will make headlines in dozens of languages. The audacity and brashness will shock people around the world. And the series of events set off by this robbery will seem more like classic American cinema than true crime: a journey into the world of underground art dealing that will lead the main characters from the South of France to the coast of Spain to the suburbs of South Florida.
They had cased the place for weeks. The thieves pass the Picasso and the Rodin. The sculptures of Carpeaux and the room full of Dufy. Two men arrive at the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder, who painted around the beginning of the 17th century. When they come to Allegory of Water and Allegory of Earth, they rip the paintings off the wall. They stuff them into garbage bags.
The thieves try for a fifth, but when they pry it off the wall, it's too big for the bag. They decide they don't have time and leave it on the floor.
All five men head out the same door they came in — right past the "Free to Public" sign. Two leave on the motorcycle, and the rest speed off in the van. As suddenly as the mayhem began, it's over. In less than five minutes, they've stolen $6.3 million worth of art.
Two months after the robbery, a Frenchman cruises past Aventura Mall on his scooter. He pulls into a plaza across the street and leaves the scooter near Target. He walks across the parking lot and stands in front of Marshalls department store.
His name is Bernard Jean Ternus. He's five-foot-eight, with a short, light-brown mullet, a triangular face, athletic shoulders, and an ample paunch. The 54-year-old is, by all accounts, friendly. But his police record in France dates back to 1966, when he was 13, and includes breaking and entering, theft, armed robbery, possession of stolen goods, destruction of a vehicle, and, as recently as 2002, assault with a deadly weapon.
Ternus isn't waiting long when an American sedan rented from Alamo pulls up. The Frenchman gets in, and the car parks near the back of the lot.
The driver is a nicely dressed gentleman in his 60s. His name is Bob. He never gives his last name. He has an open collar and expensive slacks and shoes. He's tall, knowledgeable, and confident. In the back seat is a friend of a friend of Ternus' who speaks French and English.
Bob hands Ternus some pages he has printed off the Internet. "These are the insurance values," Bob says through the translator. Ternus sorts through them. Bob explains that because the paintings were stolen so recently, their value on a black market will be considerably less than the figures on these sheets.
"I just need to get this done," Ternus says in French. His English is horrible, and his Spanish isn't much better.
Ternus wasn't the ideal middleman to sell the stolen artwork from Nice. His involvement began when he received a call from his friend Patrick Chelelekian, the Armenian drug dealer cops say took part in the robbery. Chelelekian asked if Ternus knew anybody interested in buying stolen artwork, and Ternus had rather thoughtlessly said yes. Ternus didn't have a job, but in the year he'd lived in South Florida, he had met plenty of wealthy people. He didn't have any immediate takers for the art, so he started quietly telling South Florida art dealers about some newly acquired impressionist paintings he wanted to unload.
Word soon reached a pair of local drug traffickers. Ternus knew the traffickers controlled a juicy vein of cocaine from Colombia. Like Ternus, they admitted that they knew nothing about the stolen art trade but they knew someone who did. For a cut of the sale, they agreed to put Ternus in touch with a broker from Philadelphia they'd purchased black-market art from in the past.
The night before the parking-lot meeting in Aventura, Ternus met Bob in a room at the Embassy Suites in Miami. Ternus told Bob right off that he needed to close the deal quickly, because his associates in France were ready to get paid. "They're putting my feet to the fire," Ternus told Bob through a translator friend. "I told them I have buyers." They agreed to meet again the next day to discuss a possible price range.
In the car in Aventura, Bob from Philadelphia finally tells Ternus how much he might be able to offer. For the paintings insured at more than $6 million, Bob tells Ternus he's willing to pay $100,000. "I'm going to have a hard time finding a buyer for something so well-known," Bob says.
The Frenchman initially has no reaction. "I don't think that's a good price," Ternus says finally, but he'll relay the offer to his comrades. As the three of them discuss the sale of 400-year-old oil on canvas, strip-mall shoppers buzz back and forth past the rental car.
Ternus will be going to France soon, he tells Bob, and he'll have a chance to see the paintings himself. He says that when he gets there, he can email pictures to Bob to prove they really have them. Bob seems skeptical of Ternus. He says he's flying back to Philadelphia that afternoon and they'll talk soon.
"I just want to get this done," Ternus says again.
When they're finished, Bob drops Ternus off in front of the Marshalls. The meeting has lasted about 20 minutes.
When Ternus and Chelelekian, the Armenian drug dealer involved the initial heist, arrive at a hotel in Barcelona, Bob politely asks Chelelekian to wait downstairs. The Armenian stands alone in the lobby. The posh hotel looks out over the Mediterranean Sea.
The South Florida drug traffickers are waiting in the room with Bob, the illicit art broker. So is a Spanish man with whom they have some business. It's the first week of January, five months since the robbery.
Through Ternus, the French thieves and the American drug traffickers have inched toward some sort of sale. But the thieves — still holding the paintings — have grown suspicious of the deal. They told the Americans that if they don't come to Europe to meet in person, the deal is off. They're also growing suspicious of Ternus himself and have wondered what he may have gotten them into.
They make it clear though: They want their money.
When a thief is close to cashing in, sometimes his thinking can change. Cuban gangsters in Miami call it coronado — being crowned. Like reaching an opponent's back row in a checkers game. Getting crowned means getting paid. It's converting the risk of something like smuggling cocaine into a few weeks of comfortable living. The gang in France makes clear it thinks the time it spent casing the museum and the risk involved with armed robbery and walking into broad daylight with cultural treasures is worth millions.
Before he left Florida, Ternus had a final meeting with the drug traffickers, on the water in Miami. Over a steady flow of booze, they decided they'd finalize the deal with either cash or a cocaine shipment.
Most art theft isn't committed by discriminating Pierce Brosnan types with a deep appreciation for Claude Monet or René Magritte. Heists are done by criminal opportunists who can't resist the combination of value and availability provided by most museums and private collections. And art is relatively easy to hide and move.
Most art is unloaded to a dirty broker for about 5 percent of its full value. The broker then deals the item to a middleman for about 10 percent. The middleman must be willing to hold onto it for a while. It's often a decade or more before an item can be sold at a small, clandestine auction, where it might be purchased by a dirty dealer for 50 percent of its original value. When enough time has passed and the trail of ownership can be sufficiently obfuscated — sometimes generations later — a dealer can sell the work at an auction where he can reintroduce the piece at full price to collectors.
Ternus has told the Americans that he doesn't like the pressure he's getting from the thieves in France. He loves America, though. The land of opportunity. He tells the drug traffickers that he feels at home in Florida. Ternus rents a home with his wife and young children in a quiet, middle-income Cooper City neighborhood near Stirling Road and University Drive. Ternus has a two-car garage and a pool out back. Every house has a stone driveway and trees in the front yard. Neighbors see Ternus picnicking with his family by the pool. Sometimes when he takes his scooter for a spin, he passes the parked squad car of the Hollywood police officer who lives on his street.
From the room in Barcelona, Bob sends for Chelelekian, who speaks broken English with an Armenian accent.
There are brief introductions: Drug dealers, meet art thief. They begin with a discussion of the price. Chelelekian says that he's 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 will sell the paintings only two at a time, 1.5 million euros for each transaction. If the first exchange goes smoothly, they'll wait a few days and sell the other two paintings. If something goes wrong and cops get involved, they'll hold the Monet and the Sisley as bargaining chips for reduced sentences.
Chelelekian explains that he has a friend in the States who can accept the cash payment. He says they will simultaneously hand over the paintings somewhere in Europe.
Bob the illicit art broker from Philadelphia hints that he's beginning to feel like all the hassle might not be worth it. He tells Chelelekian he's not confident he can find a buyer at that ridiculous price. He says he has a phone call to make, and he asks both men to go out in the hall. When he brings them back into the room, he says he may have a buyer in America.
After the hour-and-a-half-long meeting, Chelelekian, now fancying himself a fine negotiator indeed, tells Bob he's going to go out and buy a special international phone he'll use only for this deal. It's a sign both sides finally trust each other.
Special Agent Alex Peraza walks up a dusty trail in the Grand Canyon. He has a large pack on his back. It's the first week in May. Over six feet tall and muscular, with short, dark-brown hair, the FBI agent has hiked more than 35 miles of canyon trail in the past few days. Now he's hiking back from Phantom Ranch.
As he approaches his campsite, he sees two park rangers going the other way. After a brief chat, Peraza introduces himself.
"Oh, you're the guy we were looking for earlier," one of the rangers tells him.
As he had been enjoying his vacation, hiking around the trails of the Grand Canyon, Peraza was out of cell phone range. When he arrives at his tent, there's a message there from the rangers telling him to call the office immediately.
Peraza hikes back to the nearest phone at the ranger station. His office in Miami has news. It's about the case he's been working on for almost ten months. The deal Ternus has worked out to sell the stolen French paintings is falling apart — and with it, so is Peraza's case.
A 22-year veteran of law enforcement, Peraza has watched and listened to every second of the discussions about the sale of the stolen French art. Since his first meetings with the drug traffickers, nearly every move Ternus has made has been recorded on audio and video. And the investigation is bigger than even the most paranoid criminals might have imagined.
Ternus' translator friend works with the FBI. The men Ternus believes are drug traffickers are undercover FBI agents. Bob from Philadelphia is Special Agent Robert Wittman, the FBI's foremost art expert. In 20 years as the FBI's point man for stolen treasures, Wittman has recovered $225 million worth of art and cultural artifacts, including Rembrandt's Self-Portrait and a collection of five Norman Rockwell paintings. His biggest bust, though, was in 2003, when Wittman helped recover an original copy of the Bill of Rights.
In 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), in cooperation with the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have been tracking Lhomme and Chelelekian and the gang in Europe. Spanish police got in on the action when the operation moved to Barcelona. The European agents have been feeding the FBI information faster (and, as it turns out, more accurately) than even Ternus can get messages between the two groups.
In every country, there are prosecutors, police chiefs, lower-level commanders, and a slew of bureaucrats in on the ruse. So many people involved also means a lot of things can go wrong with the elaborate sting.
When Peraza calls from the Grand Canyon, his office patches him through to Col. Pierre Tabel, head of the French investigation. Tabel explains that Lhomme, the man authorities suspect is leader of the French thieves, has decided he won't do the transaction in the United States. It will be too much trouble to move that much cash across an ocean.
Peraza had wanted at least a part of the deal to happen in Miami so his office would be able to collar a few men — trophies for the hard work by his team of undercover agents. But he knows the priorities are getting these guys off the streets and getting the paintings back to the museum.
Tabel tells Peraza he'll support any decision he makes. "We'll do the right thing," Tabel says. Peraza tells his French counterpart he needs time to think things through.
The next day is the final hike out of the canyon. It's a four-hour march up an incline. By the time he gets to the top of the canyon, he has an idea.
He approaches the nearest ranger station, shows them his badge, and explains that he needs to use their phone for official FBI business. His office patches him through again to Tabel.
Peraza tells Tabel they may be able to take advantage of this new wrinkle. Now that Lhomme is insisting the entire exchange take place in Europe, they can demand the entire deal has to take place all at once: all the money in exchange for all the art.
Peraza knows it's a gamble, but if it works, they'll recover all four paintings. And he knows the thieves are desperate.
For Lhomme and his men, it has been almost ten months of hiding, looking for buyers, feeling them out, and negotiating a price and structure. It was time to get crowned.
An undercover French agent meets Lhomme and Chelelekian in a bar in the Prado district of Marseille, not far from the sea. It's not yet 8 in the morning on June 4, 2008, and the bars are empty. Noël-Dumarais, who police say carried the automatic weapon in the robbery, waits in a Peugeot van in a parking garage. It's similar to the one used in the heist. The plan is for the French agent to show Lhomme the money. Then Lhomme will take the agent to the paintings. There, they'd make the swap, disappear into morning traffic, and never speak again.
The three of them leave the bar. Lhomme leads the agent down the street on foot, toward the van. They never make it for the exchange. A deluge of French National Police officers swarms the men in the middle of the street, taking them to the ground. Police will report finding a gun in Chelelekian's jacket.
A few blocks away, more police officers descend on the van. They'd been tracking the group all morning. When they search Noël-Dumarais, French police say, he has a hand grenade. They immediately search the van.
In the cargo space, wrapped in garbage bags, are Allegory of Water and Allegory of Earth by Brueghel. Both paintings are bright, elaborate works depicting versions of what the Flemish artist possibly viewed as paradise. Next to them is The Lane of Poplars at Moret by Sisley, an English-born landscape painter. It's a subtle image of a man and woman walking past a row of trees and seems to embody the loose shapes and soft colors of impressionism. This is the third time the painting has been stolen and recovered since the 1970s.
Next to the Sisley is Cliffs Near Dieppe, by Monet, the man credited with creating the impressionist movement. A lesser-known work, painted when Monet was nearly 60, it comes from a period when the artist frequented the South of France. This is actually the second time this painting has been stolen — the first time was by the museum's former curator, who was sentenced to five years in prison.
The entire bust is over in minutes. The French National Police arrest ten people authorities say are connected to the heist. They are still awaiting trial.
Four hours later, on a quiet, tree-lined street in Cooper City, FBI and ICE agents assemble outside the house of a friendly Frenchman with an American dream. It's 5 a.m., still dark out.
Neighbors will say that seeing the caravan of big, black government vehicles and the men and women in FBI jackets makes it look like someone's filming a movie in the neighborhood.
Ternus answers the door in a white tank top, boxers, and slippers. His wife and children are still asleep.
Officers give him a chance to get dressed and wake his wife. They announce that they are there to arrest him for visa fraud. He offers no resistance. An ICE agent tells Ternus' wife where they're taking him and when and where he'll be appearing in court. Everyone is polite. The process takes about 20 minutes.
At the ICE station in Doral, Special Agent Alex Peraza introduces himself. For the first time, Ternus meets a man who knows him well. Peraza advises the Frenchman of his rights. Ternus immediately asks for an attorney. Peraza informs him that he's also a suspect in the Nice case, a topic that has not come up until now.
Robert Wittman is on the patio behind his house in Philadelphia, sipping his morning coffee. It's just after 8 the day of the arrests when he gets a phone call. The man at the other end is Tabel, the colonel in charge of the French investigation. "Congratulations," Tabel says in English. "Thank you for all your great work."
Wittman returns the accolades to his good friend in France. The call is over in seconds.
After 20 years as the bureau's go-to guy for international art theft, Wittman retired at the end of 2008. He has opened up his own business in Philadelphia called Robert Wittman Inc.. He's a consultant to galleries and investigates missing art for museums, private owners, and insurance companies. In all his time looking for stolen art for the FBI, Wittman says he has never seen a sting operation of this size run so smoothly.
Peraza likes to point out that as crime is globalizing, law enforcement is globalizing too. And what it came down to in the Nice case was capitalizing on the thieves' haste to get the transaction done.
"There's a transition everyone goes through, even in the noncriminal world," Peraza says. "You're expecting to sell your house. Someone comes by. First you're skeptical. Then they come a second time, and you're less skeptical. There comes a time when you're done thinking about that transaction and you're thinking about what you can spend that money on."
Peraza says Ternus is just an opportunist who got a phone call he couldn't resist. "He isn't a smart guy," Peraza says. "But he isn't stupid. This is a man who has periods in his life that are legit, but it's never enough. These criminals asked him if he could sell the paintings. Sometimes it's about answering the wrong phone call. When you swim in that element, from time to time, you will be drawn into one scheme or another. These are the offers you're gonna get. But why did he get that phone call? You're not gonna get that phone call. I'm not gonna get that phone call."
Six days after his arrest, Ternus pleads guilty in federal court to conspiracy to transfer stolen property and visa fraud. Through a court translator, Ternus tells Judge Patricia A. Seitz, "I am pleading guilty because I am guilty."
On September 24, 2008, 13 months after the robbery in Nice, Seitz sentences Ternus to five years in prison. He's incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. He did not return letters from New Times written to him in English and French.
Ternus' wife, who still lives in Cooper City, did not comment. A neighbor called the whole affair "a family tragedy that has separated children from their father."
Agents who have interviewed Ternus say he doesn't want to go back to France — he knows there's a group of dangerous criminals who are very angry at him for introducing them to the end of their careers. Oddly enough, Peraza says Ternus told him his biggest regret in all of this is the fact that he won't become a U.S. citizen. "He really does love this country," Peraza says.
Richard Birkenwald, Ternus' attorney, says he expects someone will eventually make a movie about his client. He even has a title suggestion: The Ternus Affair. He believes Ternus will be deported to France soon and will most likely face a longer sentence on charges stemming from the initial armed robbery.
Birkenwald says an old psychological experiment serves as a good metaphor for Ternus' story. It's an optical illusion first documented in 1926: A subject is shown a frame with two black dots — dot A and dot B. The subject is quickly shown a second slide in which dot A is on the other side of dot B. Most people believe they either saw dot A move around dot B or they believe they saw both dots move together.
"It's interesting to think about," the attorney says, "especially in a case about a man who appeared to be moving something from one side of the ocean to the other."
The truth is, there is no movement. It's just the way the human brain perceives those images. This perception of movement is named after a Gestalt psychologist.
It's called "The Ternus Effect."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.