His real name was René Alphonse van der Berghe, but everyone knew him as Erik el Belga (Erik the Belgian). For many years he was famous for faking and stealing works of art, but during the final stage of his life, after serving time in jail, he concentrated his efforts on charitable work, mostly in aid of the Catholic Church. Erik lived in El Palo district of Malaga, but he died in hospital last Friday at the age of 81, following a heart attack after complications from the diabetes from which he had suffered for years.
Erik el Belga became famous in the 1970s for faking works of art, something which put him in prison on three occasions. His life, reflected in his autobiography ‘Por amor al arte’, sounds like something out of a film.
Soldier and antique dealer
He joined the Belgian army at an early age and met someone from Spain, who taught him the language. After leaving the army, he started stealing works of art when he was 25 years old, after trying his luck as an antique dealer. His clients used to tell him which works they wanted, and where they were, and commissioned Erik to go and get them. Some were in a very bad condition, which is why he taught himself to restore paintings.
That is how he discovered another great talent, that of faking art, and his career took a new turn. He began to steal works from about 50 museums all over the world, replacing them with fakes he had produced himself. They were so good that many of his victims never realised that their originals had been stolen and it is said that some museums are still exhibiting copies painted by Erik el Belga, unaware that the originals are no longer in their possession. He justified his action by saying that the works were not being looked after properly and deserved to be in better hands.
Stealing art from churches
Erik was passionate about Spanish art, especially the Gothic virgins. He was first arrested in Soria in the 1960s, when he was trying to steal from a church in El Burgo de Osma. Years later he was detained in Belgium but managed to escape and come back to Spain, which he never left again. He specialised in stealing from small churches in rural areas of Catalonia, Aragón and Castilla y León and obtained at least 40 paintings that way.
His third arrest, in 1982, came after he voluntarily gave himself up. He wanted to stop his clandestine life and come out of hiding. With the few crimes they could prove, he spent three years in jail in Barcelona. It helped that he returned much of what he had stolen: about 1,500 pieces which were in better condition when given back to their rightful owners than when he had taken them; he had restored them himself.
Over time, Erik stopped faking works of art and began creating his own works. He donated many of them to convents, churches and religous charities, possibly to make up for his previous crimes.
As he wished, Erik el Belga has been buried in El Palo cemetery, near his home.