In the early hours of 7 November 1980, the notorious art thief ‘Erik the Belgian’ stole six Flemish tapestries from a church in northern Spain. Whilst most were recovered later by Interpol, a fragment of one of the tapestries was feared lost until recently.
René Alphonse van den Berghe (1940-2020), better known as the infamous gentleman criminal and art dealer, led an organised group that plundered churches and monasteries across Spain on behalf of unscrupulous collectors. He was finally caught in 1982, but quickly negotiated his freedom by returning thousands of stolen artworks.
A few years before Van den Berghe passed away in 2020, he unrepentantly declared that “everything is easy to steal. It simply depends on who commissions you.”
The tapestries targeted by Van den Berghe were made by Cornelis Schutz (1597-1655), a follower of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), in Bruges in 1654. Each measuring a whopping 4 by 6.5 metres, the historic textiles had been displayed in the church of Santo Domingo in Castrojeriz until the robbery in 1980. In the following years Spanish, French, and Belgium authorities launched an international investigation. They managed to uncover all the tapestries bar a section of ‘The Apotheosis of the Arts’ that pictured a single angel.
The aptly-named police officer Ángel Alcaraz began inquiring into the whereabouts of the last piece whilst on a course about art theft. Alcaraz contacted Van den Berghe’s lawyer, who swiftly tracked down the lost artwork amongst the late art thief’s estate. Last week, the lower lefthand section of the tapestry was finally returned to the Archdiocese of Burgos 42 years after its theft.
“If heaven should lack one angel it would be a lesser heaven,” said Alcaraz. “And if this tapestry had lacked this little angel, it wouldn’t be the same tapestry. Today we are giving back to Castrojeriz something that should never have gone in the first place.”