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."


No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario