Armed heist 'ordered by FBI chief to recover lost paintings'
As far as art heists go, it had all the hallmarks of a conventional robbery.
A gunman held up the gallery reception desk while thieves in overalls and ski-masks unhooked four paintings, stuffed them into black bin bags and made off in a getaway van.
But the multi-million euro theft, in which a Monet, Sisley and two works by Brueghel were taken from a Nice gallery, was "ordered" by the FBI's art crimes chief, it has been claimed.
Robert K Wittman, then an FBI special agent and chief of its Art Crimes Team, is accused of using "amateurish stooges" to carry out the theft so he could use the stolen paintings to infiltrate a gang that carried out a previous unsolved art heist.
Seven men go on trial on Monday for the Nice theft. They face maximum sentences of 30 years in jail for armed robbery if found guilty at the end of the week-long trial in Aix-en-Provence. But the alleged leader of the thieves, Pierre Noel-Dumarais, claims they were talked into it by Mr Wittman.
During the incident, on August 5, 2007, Mr Noel-Dumarais pointed a Colt 45 revolver at the welcome desk of the Musee des Beaux Arts.
Four accomplices then unhooked the four paintings, 'Allegory of Water' and 'Allegory of Earth' by Brueghel, Sisley's 'Avenue of Poplars at Moret' and Monet's 'Cliffs Near Dieppe'.
While their combined value has been estimated at e22m, their stolen sale price would be no more than e3m.
Mr Wittman claims he first got wind of the Nice paintings while undercover as a shady American dealer moving stolen art for crime syndicates. He was told about the works by Bernard Jean Ternus, a Frenchman based in Miami who had links to Marseille's Brise de Mer Corsican mafia clan.
Now retired, Mr Wittman recovered around $300m (€226m) of stolen art and objects in his 20-year career. But the greatest unsolved art crime in history still eluded him -- the 1990 theft from the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston of a Vermeer, two Rembrandts and five sketches by Degas worth around $500m (€377m).
So when Mr Ternus, alias "Sunny", boasted that he could get hold of the Vermeer and a Rembrandt, Mr Wittman saw his chance to recover the paintings. To "hook" Mr Ternus, Mr Wittman invited him to a party on a Miami yacht, complete with bikini-clad models, and staged the sale of five fake masterpieces to a Colombian drugs baron in exchange for gold and diamonds. The crew and cast were FBI agents, but Mr Ternus fell for it.
This is where the versions of events diverge. Mr Wittman says that during subsequent conversations about the Rembrandt and Vermeer, Mr Ternus offered him and his co-agents other works, including two works by Picasso and the Nice paintings.
"I had no idea about the Nice theft nor had I ever met or spoken to the defendants until after it occurred," Mr Wittman said.
However, Mr Noel-Dumarais's lawyer, Ludovic Depatureaux, claims that Mr Wittman encouraged the theft by expressing an interest in "Dutch paintings".
"In autumn 2006, he effectively placed an order with Bernard Ternus, saying he was interested perhaps in Vermeer and Rembrandt, but in Dutch paintings in general, and had buyers. Wittman thought that (via the Nice thefts) he would infiltrate those who stole or still hold the Vermeer and Rembrandt. The Nice heist was just collateral damage." (© Daily Telegraph, London)