Five on trial in France for brazen museum heist

28th November 2011, Comments 0 comments

Five men went on trial in France on Monday for the brazen theft from a Nice museum of four paintings by Monet, Sisley and Brueghel that were recovered in an FBI sting operation.

The works, valued at 20 million euros ($27 million), were stolen in August 2007 from the Beaux-Arts Jules Cheret museum in Nice in a heist that saw the thieves threaten staff, stuff the paintings into bags and escape in under five minutes.

Two of the men, Pierre-Noel Dumarais, 64, and Patrick Chelelekian, 59, are accused of having organised the heist with their alleged accomplices, Patrice Lhomme, 46, Gregory Moullec, 41, and Lionel Ritter, 39.

The five admitted at the trial in southern France on Monday to having carried out the robbery but denied accusations from museum staff that they were armed.

They face between 30 years and life in prison if convicted on the charges of organised armed robbery and criminal association. A verdict is expected on Friday.

The paintings -- "Cliffs Near Dieppe" by Claude Monet; "The Lane of Poplars at Moret" by Alfred Sisley; and "Allegory of Water" and "Allegory of Earth" by Jan Brueghel the Elder -- were recovered in a sting organised by the FBI and French police in June 2008.

The paintings were allegedly stolen on the orders of a French citizen living in Florida, Bernard Jean Ternus, who pleaded guilty in a US court in 2008 to conspiring to sell the art works. He was sentenced to five years and two months in prison.

Ternus allegedly told the thieves he had buyers lined up to pay three million euros for the paintings, which because of their fame would have been difficult to unload on the black market.

Ternus arranged for the thieves to meet the buyers in the southern French port city of Marseille but was unaware that he had been dealing with undercover FBI and French police agents.

The five were arrested after finalising the deal and Ternus was detained in Florida.

Both the Monet and Sisley paintings had previously been stolen from the same museum in 1998 when thieves were said to have broken into the curator's home and forced him to drive to and let them into the premises.

But they were recovered a week later and the curator subsequently pleaded guilty to having masterminded the theft.

© 2011 AFP

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