French Art Heist Mastermind Says FBI Framed Him

Jan Brueghel the Elder, <em>Allegory of Earth</em> (circa 1611). Photo: courtesy Musée des Beaux Arts, Nice.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Allegory of Earth (circa 1611).
Courtesy Musée des Beaux Arts, Nice.

Convicted art thief Bernard Ternus now claims that he's been framed for his alleged role in a French art heist, the AFP reports. The 2007 theft at Nice's Musée des Beaux-Arts took place in broad daylight and was carried out by five armed robbers who made off with four paintings by Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Jan Brueghel the Elder.

The Miami-based Ternus was convicted in US court of masterminding the crime in 2008, and after serving a five-year prison sentence, has been transferred to France. While testifying in Aix-en-Provence, Ternus claimed that he had been framed for the crime by an FBI sting operation.

According to Ternus, two men approached him asking for paintings by Dutch masters. "I was manipulated, I have never in my life asked anyone to steal paintings," he said in court. Ternus went on to claim that the supposed FBI operatives, one of whom he described as a "mysterious Frenchman," were quite insistent, and eventually threatened him.

Claude Monet, Cliffs near Dieppe (1897).

Claude Monet, Cliffs near Dieppe (1897).
Courtesy Musée des Beaux Arts, Nice.

All four paintings—Monet's Cliffs near Dieppe, Sisley's The Lane of Polars at Moret, and Brueghel's Allegory of Water and Allegory of Earth—were eventually recovered in Marseille. FBI art crimes investigator Robert Wittman led the effort that resulted in the arrest and conviction of five men, all of whom were sentenced to between two and nine years by French courts.

The burglars, who were disguised as cleaning workers, pulled off the blockbuster heist in just five minutes. According to a New York Timesreport, the Sisley was previously taken by thieves in 1978, and recovered in a Marseille sewer a few days later. It was also stolen, along with the Monet, in 1998, but turned up shortly thereafter on a boat in a town not far away. The latter robbery was overseen by Jean Forneris, the museum's curator at the time.

Ternus's trial is scheduled to end today, May 14.