French man pleads guilty in Fla. art theft case

/ Source: The Associated Press

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 that he conspired 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 painted by 17th-century Flemish master Jan Brueghel the Elder, "Allegory of Earth" and "Allegory of Water."

Sentencing was scheduled for Sept. 18.

Ternus, a French citizen who had been living in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 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 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.

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.

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.