All for the Monet

The trail of a $6 million art heist in France ends in suburban South Florida.

From the room in Barcelona, Bob sends for Chelelekian. He's tall and slim with a shaved head. He speaks broken English with an Armenian accent.

There are brief introductions: Drug dealers, meet art thief. They begin with a discussion of the price. Chelelekian says he has heard the pitiful $100,000 offer and that the number should be at least 3 million euros — about $4.7 million.

For "security purposes," he says, they will sell the paintings only two at a time, 1.5 million euros for each transaction. If the first exchange goes smoothly, they'll wait a few days and sell the other two paintings. If something goes wrong and cops get involved, they'll hold the Monet and the Sisley as bargaining chips for reduced sentences.

Chelelekian explains he has a friend in the States who can accept the cash payment. He says they will simultaneously hand over the paintings somewhere in Europe.

Bob hints he's beginning to feel like all the hassle might not be worth it. He tells Chelelekian he's not confident he can find a buyer at that ridiculous price. He says he has a phone call to make, and he asks both men to go out into the hall. When he brings them back into the room, he says he might have a buyer in America.

After the hour-and-a-half-long meeting, Chelelekian, now fancying himself a fine negotiator indeed, tells Bob he's going to go out and buy a special international phone he'll use only for this deal. It's a sign both sides finally trust each other.


Special Agent Alex Peraza walks up a dusty trail in the Grand Canyon. He carries a large pack on his back. It's the first week in May. Over six feet tall and muscular, with short dark-brown hair, the FBI agent has hiked more than 35 miles of canyon trail in the past few days. Now he's hiking back from Phantom Ranch.

As he approaches his campsite, he sees two park rangers going the other way. After a brief chat, Peraza introduces himself.

"Oh, you're the guy we were looking for earlier," one of the rangers tells him.

As he had been enjoying his vacation, hiking around the trails of the Grand Canyon, Peraza was out of cell phone range. When he arrives at his tent, there's a message there from the rangers telling him to call the office immediately.

Peraza hikes back to the nearest phone at the ranger station. His office in Miami has news. It's about the case he's been working on for almost ten months. The deal Ternus has worked out to sell the stolen French paintings is falling apart — and with it, so is Peraza's case.

A 22-year veteran of law enforcement, Peraza has watched and listened to every second of the discussions about the sale of the stolen French art. Since Ternus's first meetings with the drug traffickers, nearly every move the Frenchman has made has been recorded on audio and video. And the investigation is bigger than even the most paranoid criminals might have imagined.

Ternus's translator friend works for the FBI. The men Ternus believes are drug traffickers are undercover FBI agents. Bob from Philadelphia is Special Agent Robert Wittman, the FBI's foremost art expert. In 20 years as the bureau's point man for stolen treasures, Wittman has recovered $225 million worth of art and cultural artifacts, including Rembrandt's Self-Portrait and a collection of five Norman Rockwell paintings. His biggest bust, though, was in 2003, when Wittman helped recover an original copy of the Bill of Rights.

In one of the largest international operations ever, the French National Police and France's Central Office for the Fight Against Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC), in cooperation with the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have been tracking Lhomme and Chelelekian and the gang in Europe. Spanish police got in on the action when the operation moved to Barcelona. The European agents have been feeding the FBI information faster (and, as it turns out, more accurately) than even Ternus can get messages between the two groups.

In every country, there are prosecutors, police chiefs, lower-level commanders, and a slew of bureaucrats in on the ruse. So many people involved also means a lot of things can go wrong with the elaborate sting.

When Peraza calls from the Grand Canyon, his office patches him through to Col. Pierre Tabel, head of the French investigation. Tabel explains that Lhomme, the man authorities suspect is leader of the French thieves, has decided he won't do the transaction in the United States. It will be too much trouble to move that much cash across an ocean.

Peraza had wanted at least a part of the deal to happen in Miami so his office would be able to collar a few men — trophies for the hard work by his team of undercover agents. But he knows the priorities are getting these guys off the streets and getting the paintings back to the museum.

Tabel tells Peraza he'll support any decision he makes. "We'll do the right thing," Tabel says. Peraza tells his French counterpart he needs time to think things through.

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