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Missing Piece of Art History Puzzle Recovered

Spanish authorities had all but given up the search for the missing piece of a 17th century tapestry, which was lost in a heist carried out by notorious art thief 'Erik the Belgian'.

The Flemish tapestry hanging on the church wall with a missing pice on the bottom left hand corner
This 17th-century Flemish tapestry, titled The Apotheosis of the Arts, is the largest of a six-part series that was stolen from the Church of Santo Domingo in Castrojeriz, Spain, in 1980. (Note the missing two-by-two-foot square in the lower left corner.) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Police in Spain have discovered the missing piece in an art history puzzle 42 years in the making, reports Spanish news outlet Agencia EFE.

The saga begins with a high-stakes heist that took place on 7 November 1980, in the remote town of Castrojeriz in northern Spain. In the early dawn hours, a notorious art thief - who came to be known as 'Erik the Belgian' - snuck into town’s historic Catholic church and single-handedly stole six 17th-century Flemish tapestries created by Corneille Schutz, a follower of Peter Paul Rubens. The series depicted the muses of the classical liberal arts, with the largest woven work stretching 13 feet tall by 20 feet wide.

Interpol managed to recover all the tapestries within a couple of years, save for one maddening exception: The largest tapestry was missing a two-by-two-foot square cut from its lower left corner.

Authorities believed that the corner piece was lost forever. But last year, Ángel Alcaraz, an investigator with the Spanish National Police, decided to revisit the case while working on a research report about art thefts. Alcaraz eventually contacted one of the thief’s lawyers, who revealed that he knew the location of the missing piece.

Alcaraz’s efforts finally paid off when the fragment was returned to the church’s care in a formal ceremony. Police suspect that the thief had cut the small square from the larger work in order to frame it and attempt to sell it separately - but failed to do so.

The missing piece of tapestry displayed on a board with a police officer and a clergyman standing either side of it
Authorities officially returned the tapestry square to the Archdiocese of Burgos in a ceremony in February. Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Burgos

The missing square depicts one of the many small angels that decorate the borders of all six tapestries. “If heaven should lack one angel it would be a lesser heaven,” said Alcaraz at a press conference, according to 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.”

René Alphonse Ghislain van den Berghe (aka Erik the Belgian) was arrested in 1982 and imprisoned for three years until striking a cooperation agreement with police. He spent the final years of his life living in Málaga, Spain, helping police recover thousands of stolen heritage items before his death at 80 years old in 2020.


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