The Trail From a $6 Million French Art Heist Ends in Suburban South Florida

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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.

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Michael J. Mooney