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Priceless Tapestry Is Made Whole as Missing Piece is Returned, Solving 40-Year Heist Mystery

After an art thief stole six Belgian tapestries from a church in Spain, it took years for them to be recovered.

One of them, which came back with an infuriating new feature—a two-foot by two-foot square cut away from the bottom left corner—has finally been restored decades later, thanks to help from none other than the thief who brandished the scissors.

René Alphonse van der Berghe is sometimes known by another name: Erik the Belgian. A notorious art thief, “The Belgian” stole thousands of pieces throughout his career. Recently-deceased in his adopted country of Spain, Van der Berghe graced several newspapers with candid interviews, in which it must be said he reported several different totals for numbers of heists conducted and number of artworks lifted.

However, regarding the theft from the church in the remote town of Castrojeriz, Van der Berghe made off single-handedly with six tapestries woven in the 17th century depicting the liberal arts and the muses, the largest of which was 13 by 20 feet. Two years later, Van der Berghe turned himself in, and eventually aided in negotiating the return of thousands of the works he stole.

The missing square of the tapestry, depicting a cherub, was not returned in those years, and would remain apart for four decades until a Spanish investigator named Ángel Alcaraz took interest in the matter while working with the national police on a research report about art theft.

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Seeing that Van der Berghe had returned the tapestries, Alcaraz contacted the thief’s lawyer to see if he had any leads on where the small square could be recovered.

The missing piece, courtesy of the Archdiocese of Burgos

Information regarding its whereabouts led to it being found shortly after, and a ceremony was held in which it was turned over to the Bishop of Burgos who oversees the Castrojeriz church.

“If heaven should lack one angel it would be a lesser heaven,” said Alcaraz at a press conference, according to a translation from Sam Jones at the Guardian. “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.”

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The chief thief passed away in his home city of Malaga in 2020 at the age of 81, survived by five children he had with seven wives, one of which was his lawyer.

He never got a crack at his dream of going after the Mona Lisa, but he did write an autobiography called Erik el Belga, Por Amor al Arte or For the Love of Art.

He never committed a robbery with violence, believing it tainted the art thus stolen, and spent his final years painting, resting easy knowing that the police never caught him.

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