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.

Upstairs, the other two men grab The Lane of Poplars at Moret by Alfred Sisley. They also nab the Cliffs near Dieppe, painted in 1897 by Claude Monet.

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.