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07/10/2008

French national pleads guilty to international stolen art conspiracy involving paintings by Monet, Sisley, and Brueghel

MIAMI - French national Bernard Jean Ternus pleaded guilty today to conspiring to transport in interstate and foreign commerce four stolen paintings knowing that they were stolen, and also to visa fraud, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced.

Ternus, a French citizen, pleaded guilty to the stolen paintings conspiracy charge before U.S. District Court Judge Patricia A. Seitz in Miami, FL. The conspiracy charge stems from the August 5, 2007, armed robbery at the Musee des Beaux-Arts, also known as the Museum of Fine Arts, located in Nice, France. The armed robbers stole the following four original paintings: "Cliffs Near Dieppe" by Claude Monet; "The Lane of Poplars at Moret" by Alfred Sisley; "Allegory of Water" by Jan Brueghel the Elder; and "Allegory of Earth" also by Jan Breughel the Elder.

During the plea, Ternus admitted that, from August 2007 through June 2008, he and his co-conspirators worked to sell the stolen paintings to undercover agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and an undercover officer of the French National Police. According to documents filed with the court, Ternus had several meetings in the fall of 2007 with undercover FBI agents during which he negotiated with them for the sale of the four stolen paintings. During these meetings, Ternus told the undercover FBI agents that his associates stole the paintings, and that he needed to find a buyer for the paintings which were at that time located in southern France. On January 5, 2008, Ternus arranged with undercover FBI agents to meet in Barcelona, Spain with the individuals in France who were holding the stolen paintings.

On January 19, 2008, Ternus met in Barcelona, Spain with undercover FBI agents and with an unindicted co-conspirator who had traveled from France to Barcelona for this meeting. There, Ternus and his unindicted co-conspirator negotiated a two-part transaction with the undercover FBI agents. They would sell all four stolen paintings to the undercover agents for a total of €3 million (Euros). Two of the paintings would be transferred in exchange for €1.5 million (Euros), and the remaining two paintings would be transferred on a separate date for €1.5 million (Euros). The defendant and his unindicted co-conspirator structured the two-part transaction to retain leverage with law enforcement in the event anyone was arrested upon the sale of the first two paintings. If this occurred, they intended to use the remaining two paintings to bargain for the release of anyone who was arrested.

After the January 19 meeting in Barcelona, Ternus returned to South Florida and had several more meetings with undercover FBI agents to discuss the terms, structure, and logistics of the transactions. Then, on April 16, 2008, two of Ternus' unindicted co-conspirators arrived from France via Madrid, Spain. Two days later, on April 18, during a two-hour meeting with undercover FBI agents aboard a boat docked in Broward County, Ternus and the two unindicted co-conspirators reviewed the details of their sale of the stolen paintings to the undercover agents. One of Ternus' unindicted co-conspirators said he hid the Monet and the Sisley paintings separately from the two Brueghel paintings, and suggested that they could threaten to tear up the Monet and the Sisley if police surrounded them after the first transfer. Following a second meeting on April 20, 2008, involving Ternus, the two unindicted co-conspirators, and undercover FBI agents, the two unindicted co-conspirators returned to France. Shortly thereafter, one of Ternus' unindicted co-conspirators arranged to have the transfer of the stolen paintings and the transfer of the purchase money occur in southern France.

On May 16, 2008, one of Ternus' unindicted co-conspirators met in Carry le Rouet, France with an undercover officer from the French National Police who was believed to be a representative of the undercover FBI agents. He showed the stolen Sisley painting and one of the stolen Brueghel paintings, "Allegory of Water," to the undercover officer. The undercover French National Police officer agreed to purchase the stolen paintings on behalf of the undercover FBI agents.

On June 4, 2008, when the final transaction was to occur, the French National Police arrested Ternus' co-conspirators in southern France; ICE and FBI agents arrested Ternus in Cooper City, Florida; and the French National Police located and recovered all four stolen paintings from inside a van in Marseilles, France.

In addition to the conspiracy charge, Ternus also pleaded guilty to a visa fraud charge before U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia A. Altonaga in Miami, Florida. During the plea, Ternus admitted that he fraudulently concealed his French criminal history in order to obtain a United States visa, which he then used to enter and remain in the United States. Ternus' arrest history in France begins in 1966. During the plea, Ternus admitted that, prior to applying for his United States visa, he had been arrested in France on at least seven separate occasions, and that he had been convicted in France of assault with a deadly weapon. Ternus also admitted that he knew the visa he obtained and used had been procured by falsely claiming to have no French criminal history.

In April 2008, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey announced the Law Enforcement Strategy to Combat International Organized Crime to address the growing threat to U.S. security and stability posed by international organized crime. The strategy was developed following an October 2007 International Organized Crime Threat Assessment.

The strategy specifically reacts to the globalization of legal and illegal business, advances in technology, particularly the Internet, and the evolution of symbiotic relationships between criminals, public officials, and business leaders that have combined to create a new, less restrictive environment within which international organized criminals can operate. Ultimately, the strategy aims to create consensus among domestic law enforcement in identifying the most significant priority targets and then unified and concerted action among domestic and international law enforcement in significantly disrupting and dismantling those targets.

International organized crime is defined as those self-perpetuating associations of individuals who operate internationally for the purpose of obtaining power, influence, monetary and commercial gains, wholly or in part by illegal means, while protecting their activities through a pattern of corruption and violence. International organized criminals operate in hierarchies, clans, networks, and cells. The crimes they commit vary as widely as the organizational structures they employ.

"This investigation is a model of cooperative law enforcement in the fight against sophisticated international organized crime networks," U.S. Attorney Acosta said. "Thanks to the combined efforts of American, French, and Spanish investigators, works by Monet, Sisley and Breughel have been returned to their rightful owner."

"By working together with our international law enforcement partners, the works of these grand masters are once again in the hands of their legitimate caretakers," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Matthew Friedrich. "The theft and sale of stolen art has unfortunately become part of the portfolio of crimes international organized criminals will use to fund their illegal activities."

United States Attorney R. Alexander Acosta commended the investigative efforts of the agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as their counterparts in the French National Police and the Spanish National Police. This case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Christopher J. Hunter and Trial Attorney Scott Lawson of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the Department of Justice.