PARIS, July 24 (UPI) -- Members of an international gang charged with staging a series of spectacular art heists in chateaux and mansions across Europe were sentenced in France to between one and 14 years in prison Wednesday.
A French judge in the Loire Valley town of Montbrison handed the heaviest term -- 14 years -- to gang leader Cornelius Martens, a Dutch antiques dealer living in Belgium.
The gang is charged with robbing several hundred prestigious mansions and chateaux, including the home of a former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing. According to the French press, France and Italy were countries of choice, because of their rich cultural heritage.
The robbers then sold their goods to middlemen at a fraction of their value, for eventual resale in the United States, Switzerland and elsewhere. The group, and other chateaux heisters, generally came from Belgium and the Netherlands, where the antique trade is reportedly less stringent than in France.
But the demise of the "chateaux gang" began in November 2000, when police arrested Italian chauffeur Mario Cipoletti, after finding a treasure trove of tapestries, delicate clocks and bronzes in his truck, during one of his reportedly regular shuttles to transport the stolen goods between Saint-Etienne France and Amsterdam.
Shortly after, Martens was arrested in Belgium and later identified as gang leader.
It's unclear exactly how many luxurious homes were stripped of priceless treasures.
But following the police sting in 2000, French authorities recorded a dramatic drop in reported art robberies. There were only 382 art robberies in 2001, down from 641 the previous year, Le Monde newspaper reported, citing government statistics. The thefts reached a record 1,266 in 1998.