The Exploits of Erik

Erik was a Belgian, Erik was a thief. Erik became a media star and turned over a whole new leaf.

from Lookout March 1996

Nothing really all that odd about a thief in church. As a matter of fact, you will often find a pair of them flanking the central figure on most altarpieces. But last August, when one such individual was given the run of the pulpit, streetwise Spanish reporters scrambled to Roda de Isábena, a one-telephone town tucked away in the high Pyrenees.

"I must follow the path of my heart," intoned the man known on Interpol rap sheets as Erik the Belgian, addressing camera crews and curious locals who had Roda's magnificent but moth eaten cathedral packed to the archivault. The seat of a thriving medieval diocese, Roda's current population is 31 full-time souls.

"Now that I am 55 years old, acts of love do not come as easy as they once did," expounded Erik, whose real name is René Alphonse van den Berghe. "So I can atone for the harm I've done only by offering that which I've made with the labor of my own hands."

Gesturing towards 17 framed oil paintings mounted on the choir stalls, and turning to Father José María Leminyana, he said, "I am asking that you accept these as a token of my deep respect, even though it comes from a bandit".

The pictures -- which turned out to be oil paintings by Erik of the eleventh-century cathedral -- were to pay for the restoration of a Gothic triptych, one of the pieces he could not be bothered to steal the last time he came to town, sixteen years previously.

Roda's missing artworks never added up to more than a trickle among the truckloads of treasure looted by Erik during the 30-year criminal career he makes no bones about confessing to, now that the statute of limitations has runs out. But Fr. Leminyana had best forget about the ninth century seat of San Ramón, which Erik deliberately broke up to smuggle it out of the country. He hints, though, chances are better for a pair of Coptic liturgical combs which his expert eye deems "unique in all the world".

Oh, really? He's offering to give back his booty? Well, not exactly. But he'll be glad to make discrete contact with the present owners and negotiate mutually satisfactory terms. Only the vulgar would call it "ransom". 

He's all heart, this guy. Just don't press him about what police say is a hoard of Romanesque and Gothic ivories constituting his personal "pick of the crop" stashed away in some Swiss bank vault and which is not going anywhere, of that you can be sure. 

Erik's alleged grand cru collection was culled from thousands of polychrome wooden statues, furniture, illuminated manuscripts, Church plate and other sacred artworks -- you name it, he stole it. But only the beautiful pieces, never the merely valuable ones.

For larceny gave him more than just a lucrative living, it was his own peculiar form of art appreciation. "Stealing art is an act of pleasure," he told an El País reporter as part of his summer self-promotion blitz, confiding that he literally took some of his looted booty to bed with him.

Mind you, Erik wasn't always so forthcoming. Just two years ago he was indignantly insisting that he merely acted as middleman for works of questionable origin being pilfered by venial priests, sacristans and even the odd bishop or two.

"The Spanish clergy behaved like the moneylenders in their own temples. But nobody ever accused them of sacrilege for selling artworks whose mystery and spiritual content were oblivious to them."

Since then he's been singing a different tune and acknowledges that the Roda job is one of Erik's (sometimes he says 60, sometimes 200) robberies on Spanish soil. With hardly a padlock for protection, the churches and monasteries of Old Castile and the Catalonian hinterland were his targets of preference.

All crooks prey on the vulnerable. But Erik never shrunk from a big time challenge like the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, or Yuste Monastery. Or the Olot Diocesan Museum, which was located directly above the Guardia Civil barracks. (He slipped in through the roof.) To hear Erik tell it, though, in his heart of hearts he felt he was salvaging priceless works from destructive damp, termites, and the indifference of those entrusted with their preservation. I love, therefore I steal is the line he now peddles to the press.

"In Spain," he maintains, "nobody cared about their heritage until I started making off with it. You didn't even know what you had; no inventory existed. It was an absolute scandal."  He claims that one parish priest was snipping pieces out of Flemish tapestries woven to designs by Rubens to unblock a doorway, and insists "the whole country was a gold mine, art was just lying about everywhere."

How exactly did he stage his heists? Erik is giving away no secrets at this late date but oil stains make it clear that hydraulic jacks were used to burst down doors when heavy duty bolt cutters would not suffice.

Did he ever use violence? No, says Erik, not in the act. Once, though, a client who tried to do him down on prices had to be suspended by his heels from an upper story window until he saw the light of reason.

Which brings up the question of where, exactly, the purloined artworks ended up. According to Erik, stories you hear of Brazilian millionaires slavering over Cezannes in some underground bunker or oil sheikhs sporting Lautrec lampshades are not far off the beam.

"Every robbery is carried out by prior arrangement with the buyer," Erik claims."Individuals who realize they are purchasing an object that is a direct reflection of God, something truly holy. Which is why they buy for love, and will pay whatever price is asked."

"I am just the tip of an iceberg that extends to the great artistic shrines of the USA, a few European countries and Japan. Wherever there is a great culture you will find great collectors. In Spain," he adds disdainfully, "all you've got are investors."

Being on chummy terms with the rich and unscrupulous was one reason why Spanish police had a tough time bringing him to heel. "They were looking for me in all the wrong places. They were looking in the underworld," he sneers.

When they finally did nab him, in January 1981, it was after sitting down to dinner at a Casteldefells luxury restaurant, albeit police were forced to stake their quarry from a nearby frankfurter stand. Erik managed to give them the slip but was arrested when he went to scrupulously pay his hotel bill.

During the subsequent 37 months he dined in at Barcelona's Prision Modelo, Erik painted 300 paintings, was regularly beaten and tortured by members of Madrid's Art Crimes Brigade (so he says), perfected his Spanish and did good works in the infirmary. By an odd sort of coincidence, during that same period, police managed to recover 1,600 missing artworks, which made Culture Ministry officials so mightily pleased that in 1983 they mounted an exhibition in Madrid highlighting over 200 of them.

That Erik played his "get out of jail free" card is beyond question. Doubtless he would have been released even earlier were it not for pending extradition requests and a most ill-advised escape attempt in 1983 in which in the best B movie tradition, he knotted bedsheets together and descended from the hospital room to which he had been transferred after complaining of chest pains. Then he hired a taxi to go to Zaragoza, where his twenty-something girlfriend of the moment was living.

They let him keep money in jail? The taxi driver didn't notice his passenger was wearing pajamas? Whatever, Erik had the miserable luck to choose the very night that police roadblocks were out everywhere to catch ETA terrorists.

After getting out in 1985, Erik settled down to the quiet life in Málaga, of all places. For the past ten years Spanish authorities have allowed him to live discretely in the very country he systematically pillaged. Perhaps the stolen art that at irregular intervals continues to turn up unannounced at their embassies in Paris and Rome may have something to do with this extreme instance of Spanish bureaucratic benevolence.

In Málaga, a lucky seventh marriage to a Spanish criminal lawyer provided him with his first son, in addition to first class legal defense services, and he even signed with Telecinco TV network to host a series that later fell through.And he kept up with his own painting while undertaking the odd local decorating job: La Malagueta and the Cercado de Calderón restaurants are his work. For the record, Erik claims a member of the  Belgian royal family gave him his most lucrative portrait commission.

In 1993, however, the good life of the well-heeled working expat seemed at an end when Spain tossed Erik briefly back in the slammer after the Brussels government pressed for his extradition. Not that he stayed there for long; the statute of limitations on his crimes had run out. But Erik insists it was a crude attempt to pressure him into fingering his clients, from whom Brussels sought to recover various pieces whose disappearance he had nothing to do with.

That's all in the past now. He's got money and respectability, and from the looks of things, is pushing hard for celebrity status. Showing off the snapshots he had taken of himself in the churches he plundered, making sure fawning reporters hear about the bottles of champagne he left behind for his victims.

This is a repentant sinner? Father Leminyana appears to think so. "It was the right gesture for him to make," he says. And Erik, for his part, asserts that "Now that I have obtained the holy father's forgiveness I feel much better about living in Spain."

But at least some of Roda de Isábena's 31 inhabitants are having none of it. "So where are our stolen statues?" asked one who made a point of not being present at Erik's public act of contrition. "He doesn't have to rob for a living because he lives from his robberies -- that's supposed to make him a saint? Some nerve he has coming back here. I don't want to criticize our priest though, and maybe it will be good for tourism."

You just know this is going to go viral in no time at all, but it's too good not to run, don't you think?


Tour de Force

from New Partisan, March 10, 2006

Or maybe more like a forced tour? Or maybe it’s just me, getting old and cranky and too easily startled by innovation. But surely I can’t be the only one who was taken aback on hearing about the Concert Companion®, the latest in handheld gizmos hell-bent on transforming our lives. This time it’s the experience of listening to live classical music that gets the business. It happened during a heavyweight bout in which Beethoven and Mahler duked it out, with an assist from the Oakland East Bay Symphony. I wasn’t there, but got to read about it in the Feb. 28, 2005 LA Times.

The CoCo is made in the size and semblance of a PDA and does its wireless work by relaying real-time words and images of a edifying character to concertgoers in the intimacy of the uppermost stalls. According to the newspaper, enlightenment comes in the form of a text message on the backlit screen notifying the operator that “the bass builds in intensity” when the bass starts building in intensity, and ditto for "the strings sing seductively" later on.
You can also beam down color images to reinforce whatever critical consensus has established as the effect or mood the poor devil of a multimedia-challenged composer was trying to create with mere music. Perhaps a Pixar puppet show for Petrushka or a Beardsley faun for Debussy? You have to be cautious, though, about attaching visual referents to music. Who can hear Ponchielli without flashing on a bunch of leering crocodiles trying to either eat or rape all those prancing ostriches and hippos in tutus?
On the other hand, there’s something to be said for a full frontal podium camcast that gives the audience something more than the conductor’s flapping elbows and coattails. Anyone who’s ever ended up in the bleachers at the Hollywood Bowl must be grateful the big screens (and skillful camera work) that allow you to see the performers whose music is coming at you from a full city block away.
Opera buffs by now have gotten used to large or small-format subtitle screens, and these are generally seen as a helpful, non-intrusive convergence between technology and the arts. But performance mediated by experts goes back a way. Ever since the first transistor radios came out, fans have been taking them to the stadium so as not to miss out on the play-by play, enhancing the spectator’s experience with the expertise of a Mel Allen or Jimmy Dudley.
Taken together, these amenities constitute what CoCo inventor Roland Valliere terms “experience enhancement." And if you’re still bored out of your skull while the fat lady keeps on belting them out, you can – well, maybe not quite yet, but I can see it coming — get in a couple rounds of Donkey Kong before the clapping starts.
One way of looking at it is just as a digital delivery system for the same product traditionally packaged in the form of program notes. Who could object to retailing biographical anecdote bites, contextualizing a work in its period and bringing up a few musicological talking points to give a rough idea of what the composer was up to and exactly how he made the sounds come out the way they do?
What I find interesting, though, is that the product’s purveyors emphasize it “should be seen primarily as a means of broadening the audience for orchestra concerts, and secondarily as a means of deepening the experience for conventional concertgoers.” In other words, they’re pitching orchestra managers a security blanket for potential ticket buyers who feel themselves to be too obtuse to experience classical music without a crutch, or who sort of like what they’re hearing but feel they might miss out on something unless they know – unless they have been told — what they should listen for.
In times of dwindling public interest and permanent financial crisis, you can’t blame orchestras for grasping at anything that promises to renew and replenish their faltering audiences. CoCo inventor Roland Valliere says his device “provides a value-added experience akin to museum audio tours - except Concert Companion is a visual enhancement of an aural experience, instead of the other way around - making the music accessible to a greater number of listeners."
The analogy seemed not unreasonable, but made me wonder if music lovers would succumb to the same extent that canned guided spiels seem to have become de rigeur as an accessory on museum visits. Accordingly, I headed back to California determined to end my long-standing boycott of audio-enhanced museum going when I went for a look at the much-touted King Tut show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It cost me six bucks to find out what I have been missing, and it turned out to be Omar Sharif, his disembodied voice indistinguishable to me from that of Ricardo Montalban’s way back when he was bossing the dwarf around.

Sharif slides down the vocal register to a hammy hissed whisper as he evokes the mysterious Egyptian past, but his narrative merely paraphrases the labels on the display cases, though less than a third of the treasures on exhibit get audio coverage. I should have thought the earphone option would be to allow you to opt in for extra content, instead of a few E-minor chords to embellish Omar’s anecdotes of pharaonic peculiarities. By the same token, the soundtrack from a National Geographic special would have been a welcome curtain-raiser and time killer while waiting an hour in line to get in.
So I had just about decided I would stick to my Luddite rejection of the CoCo and all its intelligent iPod brethren when it suddenly hit me: a memory rush of undergraduate reading and the constant bobbing up and down the page to retrieve the inevitable and indispensable Shakespearian footnote. Wouldn’t the Concert Companion be wonderful as a footnote-on-demand system during a live stage performance?

It might work like this: Hamlet, Act II, Scene II: “Then are our beggar bodies our monarchs, and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows.” Beg pardon, prince? We need only consult the console in our lap, and up pops Steven Greenblatt to lend us a hand: “Then beggars, being without ambition, are not shadows but have substance: if monarchs and heroes (who ambitiously ‘stretch’ too far) are shadows and only substantial bodies can cast shadows, they must be the beggars’ shadows.”

Er, right. Thanks for that. But I have to agree with the melancholy Dane that “it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”


Photography: Isabel Muñoz

from Focus, Jan-Feb.2006

Isabel Muñoz's fifteen-year retrospective in the underground gallery in Madrid's Plaza de Colon this past autumn could make you believe she knows how photograph the human body like the idea of photographing the human body had never occurred to anyone until she came along. Of course, a claim like that comes with a catch: not just any old human body need apply. But the line forms here if your qualifications include physical perfection, the ability to fly through the air or contort yourself into geometric shapes that would have baffled M.C.Escher.  

So her subjects are bodies that have been intensively shaped and disciplined. Dancers (from the National Ballet of Cuba and Spain's Victor Ullate company), folk dancers (flamenco, tango, belly and Asian), circus acrobats, honest-to-God Shaolin monks, or anyone with proportions and musculature that would turn a Greek statue green with envy. In her quest for the somatic singularities she wanted to find new ways of expressing, Muñoz did a Leni Reifenstahl and headed for Africa, where she found it among the Surma people of  Ethiopia and on the Ivory Coast. The pictures she brought back from Africa are some of the most impressive in a career portfolio already packed with images that will bear looking at for a long time to come.

Odd there should be no nudes (which is good nudes, I guess). She does allow herself a couple of clever but harmless visual double entendres, an undertaking possibly trickier than conveying sensuality or raw sex. There is also no background (in other words, no context) for her bodies, just the warm and fuzzy grayscale of the large platinum prints she so expertly prints herself.

That's just one part of the show, the major part, a retrospective view of the work that  Isabel Muñoz made her reputation with. Since then, she has ventured into new pictorial and empathic territory, the brothels of Cambodia where children are enslaved and abused. Her photographic language changes because the photographer's function obviously has to change in a situation like that.

What do we see in those children's haunted faces? Were you expecting  windows into their tormented, violated souls? Or to put it another way, would a viewer react to these photographs in the same way if they were not captioned?

I think probably not, and to see the difference, check out Born in Brothels the compilation by Zana Briski of photos taken not just of, but by children  born, raised and condemned to spend their lives as prostitutes in Calcutta's city-within-a-city red-light district. Everything that can possibly be said about the subject is in those pictures (including the children's ability to maintain laughter and hope). Does it matter that Briski’s brutalized children are in Calcutta, and Muñoz’s in Cambodia? It shouldn’t -- unless you think photographers should divvy up the world's misery and cruelty into parcels of turf, where Sebastiao Salgado gets dibs on Sao Paulo street children, and so on.

Is that just another way of saying that if you've seen one serially raped, violated, brutalized, permanently damaged Asian child, you've seen them all? This is going to get me in trouble, but actually, yes, you have. Unless the image somehow impacts in a new way, it is in a sense superfluous, no matter how valuable it may be as documentation. And Muñoz is much too good with a camera to settle for that.