Any one of us might fantasise, now and again, about robbing a security van outside a bank, but that doesn’t make us thieves. As the writer Ray Loriga observed: «they only hang a man for the crimes he commits, not the ones he dreams of committing».
According to the FBI, the market in stolen artworks is worth around ten billion dollars a year, the third-biggest illegal trade, for the amount of cash it generates behind drugs and arms trafficking. We've got used to news stories such the one from November 2006, when Goya's Niños en el carretón (Boys in the cart) was stolen while being transferred from the Toledo Museum of Art, in Ohio, to the New York Guggenheim. You remember Oslo? Two people in masks - «like bank robbers», it was said - made off with Munch's The Scream and Madonna, right in front of the security cameras. Nobody was injured. They escaped in a black car in which they later let off a fire extinguisher to remove any fingerprints. The frames have also been thrown away. The Scream, worth 87 million euros, is to Oslo what the Mona Lisa is to Paris. Of course that painting, too, was stolen, on 21 August 1911.
It had been given up for lost when the truth was discovered: Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee of the Louvre, had hidden it in a wardrobe and taken it out under his coat. The real mastermind of the robbery, however, was his accomplice, an ex-con called Eduardo de Valfierno who, for his part, had engaged the French forger, Yves Chaudron, to make perfect copies and sell them. But Peruggia heard nothing further from Valfierno and two years after the robbery he was caught trying to sell the painting to an art dealer in Florence. The work was exhibited in Italy and then returned to the Louvre at the end of 1913. It's an amusing fact that Picasso was among the suspects, along with his friend, the French poet Apollinaire, who was brought in for questioning.
Another story that received a lot of press attention – this is some years ago now - was the one about the art thieves who tried to negotiate directly with public bodies to ransom their missing artworks. It involved a medallion, made by Pablo Gargallo, which had been stolen from the Palau de la Virreina in Barcelona. The thieves, no doubt influenced by the movies, sent a message using letters cut out of newspapers. It couldn’t have been clearer: if they wanted their artwork back, they had to put a notice in the Miscellaneous section of the small ads in La Vanguardia, with the heading «For Sale: Ocarina in good condition». Following that short sentence the phone number, for the purpose of negotiating, was to appear. But nobody ever called to express any interest in the instrument.
Museums, castles, churches and above all private houses fall victim to this kind of crime. They reckon that the robber's share, when a stolen artwork is sold, comes to maybe ten percent of the price, which is still a lot of money. In August 2001 three individuals bound and gagged the sole security guard working for the businesswoman Esther Koplowitz, one of the wealthiest women in Spain. They escaped with fourteen paintings, an eighteenth-century china set of stones and an Egyptian Shabili statuette. On a different scale, in Aragón - specifically in one house in Castejón de Monegros, - a tea set, a canvas and some genuine SS ceremonial swords were spirited away. Their value was set to 600 000 euros. But, one naturally asks – who actually handles this type of information?
INTERPOL, the third-largest organization in the world courtesy of its eighty-four member countries behind only the United Nations and FIFA divides the perpetrators of these thefts into three categories: compulsive collectors, secondhand art dealers and networks of professional criminals. In that final category we find René Alphonse Van den Berghe, better known as Erik the Belgian. Erik (born Nuiville, Belgium, 1940) is one of the most famous art thieves and forgers in Europe. Very well-known in Aragón for the pillaging to which he subjected the cathedral of Roda de Isábena in 1979, this real-life, twentieth-century pirate carried out his criminal campaign against Spanish heritage between 1977 and 1982, during which time he committed more than sixty robberies and helping himself to more than six thousand works, and in the process damaging many more. Years later, once the statute of limitations on his crimes had expired, he allowed some of these works to be recovered, hoping to make more money in return for revealing their locations.
The police profile of Erik the Belgian describes an over-imaginative kind of person, the kind who knows less than he makes out - and one who makes no apologies for his past. Diabetic and preparing for his third heart bypass, he lives in retirement on the Costa del Sol and sleeps for four hours a day. Married seven times and father of six children by six different women, he describes himself as «a man of God, living in happiness and the contemplation of beauty». He claims to be a member of Opus Dei, he has their permission to make portraits of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer and he receives their commissions, the Black Madonna at Torreciudad, painted in liquid gold, being one. His current partner is a well-known lawyer from Málaga who represents defendants in areas connected with drugs trafficking (she represented, for instance, Monzer Al-Kassar, the notorious arms dealer) who got him out of jail more than sixteen years ago.
«I was an altar boy and I learned the love of art when I was just a little boy. So I went on to study Fine Arts in Brussels and began to work as a painter. Later I was an antique dealer and then I began to steal», he stated in a radio interview. The first time he was arrested (for trying to sell a valuable work to a police officer) the prosecution sought a sentence of three hundred and eighty-four years behind bars. He fled, while on parole, and in 1975 he came to Spain - a thieves' paradise. With the help of his old associates he began removing artworks from the Iberian Peninsula and distributing them across Europe - until 1982, when he ran out of luck and found himself banged up in Sitges. He spent thirty-seven months on remand in a Prison in Barcelona and seven years on bail. At his trial he was acquitted.
Erik boasts that he saved thousands of art works that he found «thrown into the street» and that his robberies were a good thing for sacred art in Spain, arguing that if Lord Elgin hadn't looted the Marbles from the Parthenon, they would have probably have fallen into ruin. Everything that has been preserved has been due to plundering - so he has nothing to feel guilty about. And Spain is the world leader in sacred art. Part of the problem was that until 1985, when the National Heritage Law was passed, it was legal to sell artefacts belonging to the Church, which owned most of the country’s artistic heritage. And that encouraged, on the quiet, an absolute orgy of illicit dealing.
Erik the Belgian’s motto is that behind every theft there is always a collector. «I only stole to order, according to contract, which is why I can say that the biggest looters of all have been museums and the murky world of the auction-houses», he declared. «Those who steal the artworks are just the first link in the chain: they bring them to the marketplace via agents who usually have a reputation for receiving stolen goods. These agents, the second link, sell the works to other, more reputable agents more familiar with the market. The fourth link is the dealers, who are sometimes ignorant of the dubious provenance of the work that the agent is offering them, though most of them purchase without asking too many questions. Any investigation aimed at getting back a stolen work will break down when it gets into private hands, which are the final link in the chain. As the investigators put it, «the work stops moving.»
The band with whom he normally worked comprised three members, ex-servicemen and professional mercenaries: one would scale the roof of the church, or hide inside until it closed, another would take down the desired piece and the third would carry it away and drive. The Belgian used to leave behind, at the scene of the crime, a bottle of champagne and a couple of empty glasses: «to drink a toast to love and beauty». But the romantic legend around his person cannot possibly withstand scrutiny: it’s quite false, for instance, that works were never damaged. Sometimes he even sold them cut into pieces, going as far as to break up Gothic roof beams and a unique eleventh century boxwood masterpiece, San Roman’s Seat, from Roda de Isábena, as well as many other works. Indeed the cathedral priest at Roda de Isábena, one José María de Leminyana, slept in his own place of worship for sixteen years for fear that Erik would return and finish his work.
Some time afterwards – in July 1995 – Erik presented him with nineteen paintings he had done himself, and that have immediately been sold, in order to restore the cathedral triptych. He claimed to know the whereabouts of two supports, and other sections, of San Roman’s Seat and insisted: «by making this donation I am trying to show how an ordinary citizen can help with the preservation of our artistic heritage.»
Now that the legend has made of him a valued painter, now that he turns down proposals, worth millions, to write his memoirs, now that he speaks at conferences, now that he is a consultant to collectors, banks and committees for the preservation and restoration of national heritage and to museums all over the world, now that monks, among the congregation at the church of the Good Samaritan in Nerja auction his paintings on the internet to help with the building of an old people’s home, now that the local authority in Cúllar, in Granada, has set up a foundation and a gallery bearing his name, Reneé Alphonse Van den Berghe, better known as Erik the Belgian, conjures up, from his idyllic retirement in Málaga, memories of a wilder time, on the wrong side of the law.
The world turned upside down.
Translated from spanish by Justin Horton