French Man Pleads Guilty in Art Heist

A French citizen pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell four valuable paintings stolen from a Nice, France, art museum last year in a high-profile heist that led investigators from Europe to Florida and back again.

Bernard Jean Ternus— who faces a maximum federal prison sentence of up to 15 years for the crime and a related charge of visa fraud -- admitted that he and his co-conspirators tried to sell the stolen paintings to undercover agents from the FBI and the French National Police.

"The FBI agents and French National Police officers are to be commended," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Hunter. "Their close cooperation resulted in the simultaneous apprehension on two continents of numerous subjects and the recovery of all four stolen masterpieces. These agents and officers showed, once again, that art theft does not pay, and those who try to sell stolen art will be caught and prosecuted."

Ternus's attorney, Richard Birkenwald, refused to comment on the case.

Bold Theft in Broad Daylight

The paintings stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice, France, include two well-known impressionist works: Claude Monet's "Cliffs Near Dieppe" and Alfred Sisley's "The Lane of Poplars at Moret." The other two, "Allegory of Earth" and "Allegory of Water" were painted by the 17th century Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder.

The August 2007 heist made headlines, not only for the value of the paintings stolen, but for the audacity of the theft.

According to newspaper reports, it only took 10 minutes for five armed and masked men wearing jumpsuits to steal four paintings and damage a fifth that they were unable to carry. The theft of the paintings, valued at $6.3 million, took place in broad daylight.

The elaborate investigation that landed Ternus in jail lasted almost a year, spanned three countries, and involved the cooperation of five national and international crime-fighting organizations.

Ternus met with undercover FBI agents in Florida in October 2007 to negotiate the sale of the four stolen paintings. According to court documents, Ternus told FBI officials that his associates stole the paintings and that he was looking for a buyer.

After several meetings, Ternus finally agreed to sell the paintings to undercover FBI agents in Barcelona, Spain, on January 19, 2008, for a total value of 3 million euros. Ternus planned to sell the paintings in two transactions, saving the second two paintings for leverage to use with authorities in case anyone was arrested.

According to courtroom testimony, one of Ternus's co-conspirators said he hid the Monet and Sisley paintings and suggested that they could threaten to tear up the artworks if police surrounded them during any of the transactions.

The final transaction was supposed to take place on June 4, when the French National Police arrested Ternus's co-conspirators in southern France and recovered the paintings. On that same day, FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested Ternus in Cooper City, Fla., on charges of conspiracy and visa fraud.

Ternus also pleaded guilty to visa fraud, which could land him in jail for 10 years and cost him a $250,000 fine. In the plea, Ternus admitted falsely claiming that he had no French criminal history in his visa application. Court documents show that Ternus has been arrested seven times on crimes ranging from breaking and entering to assault with a deadly weapon.

New Strategy to Target International Crime

The arrest of Ternus and his co-conspirators depended on the cooperation of the Department of Justice, the U.S. attorney's office for the southern district of Florida, the FBI, ICE , and the French and Spanish national police.

In a statement e-mailed to ABC News, Acting Assistant Attorney General Matthew Friederich stressed the importance of interagency cooperation in a growing globalized and tech-savvy international crime network.

"Cooperation with our international law enforcement partners is crucial to fighting international organized crime," Friederich said. "Advances in technology and globalization, among other factors, mean these criminals can operate from almost anywhere in the world and still commit crimes in the United States. The cooperation in the case ... led directly to finding, arresting, and indicting this defendant, not to mention recovering these irreplaceable art treasures."

The investigation was part of a new international crime-fighting strategy that aims to build consensus and unity among different law enforcement agencies to "identify the most significant priority targets, and then significantly disrupt and dismantle those targets," according to a Justice Department release.

Ternus will likely be deported to France, according to Justice Department officials. No promises have been made, but officials added that Ternus is eligible for a sentence reduction if he cooperates with authorities in the investigation.

ABC News' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.