A French man pleaded guilty Thursday to attempting to sell four valuable paintings that were stolen last year from a French art museum in a brazen robbery by masked, armed thieves.
Bernard Jean Ternus, 56, admitted conspiring to sell the paintings for about $4.7 million to buyers who turned out to be undercover FBI and French police agents. Four of their meetings were videotaped and dozens of conversations recorded, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Hunter.
“Why are you pleading guilty?” asked U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz.
“Because I am guilty,” said Ternus, speaking in French that was translated into English.
The paintings stolen in August 2007 from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nice, France, include two well-known Impressionist works: “Cliffs Near Dieppe” by Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley’s “The Lane of Poplars at Moret.” The other two were both painted by 17th-century Flemish master Jan Brueghel the Elder: “Allegory of Earth” and “Allegory of Water.”
Ternus, a French citizen who had been living in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Cooper City, faces a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison and up to $250,000 in fines. He has agreed to cooperate in the investigation of the robbery and could receive a much lighter sentence, prosecutors said.
But Seitz said Ternus shouldn’t count on that.
“If I grant it, I don’t have to grant it to the extent you want,” the judge said.
Sentencing was scheduled for Sept. 18. Ternus also pleaded guilty to visa fraud for lying about his criminal past on a visa application, but he is unlikely to get additional prison time for that, Hunter said.
The art had been missing for months until Ternus struck a deal to sell the paintings to the FBI agents. When the buy was supposed to happen on June 4 in Marseille, France, French national police arrested two other people and recovered the art undamaged in a van.
The negotiations between Ternus and FBI agents began in October and included meetings in Miami, France and Barcelona, Spain. Eventually, an undercover French national police officer agreed to purchase the art on behalf of the FBI agents.
During one meeting on a yacht docked near Fort Lauderdale, Ternus and two French associates discussed with the FBI agents a plan to sell the paintings in two stages. One of Ternus’s associates said he wanted to sell the Brueghels first, keeping the better-known Monet and Sisley works in reserve.
“If we are surrounded by police, he said, we could threaten to tear up the other two, which are more valuable” according to a factual statement filed with the court. “They intended to use the remaining two Nice paintings to bargain for the release of anyone who was arrested.”
The men all raised cocktails in a toast “for good luck” at the close of this meeting according to the statement.
Ternus will probably be deported to France after he serves his U.S. prison sentence, said his attorney Richard Birkenwald. The other men involved in the theft are being prosecuted in France.
Court records show that Ternus has been arrested at least seven previous times since 1966 in France on crimes ranging from breaking and entering to assault with a deadly weapon.