29 June 2012

Erik the Belgian has an appointment.

Fakes, thefts, weird schemes – the dark side of the art world’s art is a most fascinating subject for the public imagination, but one less featured in this blog. Quite simply, the cases I have read about do not normally offer any serious interest beyond the spectacular signatures and amounts of money involved –in some cases even, the real fun lies in guessing why it is so difficult to get them right.

The case of Erik the Belgian however seems to offer some interesting nuances. Mainly because of his own insistence in exposing himself.  René Alphonse van den Berghe, as he was christened, is now 86 years old and determined to leave his mark before he leaves this world. After some TV appearances and interviews, he has finally published his memoirs.

Selective memory, he has. Not a word about this corner of Europe called Catalonia, although  in a recent interview he stated that he has “worked” in the Cathedral at Tarragona, and some lesser-known museums. He has also forgotten about his most notorious case, which involved the 9th century Chair of Saint Raymond, from the monastery Roda d’Isàbena in Aragon, a keystone of Romanesque decorative arts. Not something that will touch Erik’s heart: in December 1979, it was the target of one his last attacks. Mimicking Mafia’s style, he ordered the precious masterwork to be cut in pieces, and sent the bits one to one partly to buyers, partly to the police in order to force a good deal in exchange for his “retirement”. You can see the outcome in the picture above.

As a matter of fact, one might picture Erik’s life as a fake in itself. In his book, he tries to advance a moral argument for his activities. He therefore deserves an answer, on the grounds of morality and honour – and good humour,  if I can manage it.

Erik’s line of defence is this: the artworks he “worked” with, laid in a despairing state in forgotten museums, churches and religious buildings – the hopeless victims of an appealing lack of proper care. He rescued them, sometimes even in a near-legal way – that is how he sees paying for them to the defaulted caretaker, be he poor, ignorant or his peer in the Most Old Order of the Knaves. Once the hit piece was in his hands, he crowned his efforts by securing a good place for it, that is, the loving collector who usually had been kind enough to suggest to him to do the job.

The dream of an antique dealer is to find a previously hidden masterpiece; acquire it for a good price if possible, and always in the dark (that is, not completely sure that it was the real thing); find out that he has hit the jackpot; and sell it with a clear conscience to a respectable collector or institution, with some nice profit and with a fair expectation it will be treated as it deserves.  Put it however you like: perhaps the dealer will go as far as mounting an exhibition and editing a catalogue, perhaps he loves discretion, but at the end of the day, the business is always the same.

As you have already suspected, the difficulty lies in doing it in a good way. True, the devil lies in many of the details of the process. But there are also opportunities for little or large sacrifices, of money and time, for the sake of a good settlement. Erik’s self-assuring explanation of his own course of action is, I hope you agree, the ultimate parody of the dealer’s dream. He falls into one of lair’s oldest traps: calling nasty things with fancy names. In his case, “lifesaving” instead of “destruction”.

But this is not the only side of Erik the Belgian.

First there is the fact of his fastidious call for public attention. Then, there is this statement, given in the same interview mentioned before:

“I have never sleep alone in my life. You know, sleeping alone is horrible, and sleeping with someone you don’t love even worst. Life is a sin, a vice, a pleasure”.

The first part of the statement shows a bombastic personality. But the second part of the statement betrays something very different: a degree of fear. It could be that I have read Chesterton and Guareschi with too much optimism, but for me the cynical fellow that seeks justification, and still keeps some remnants of good humour and fear, is not the same desperate one that wishes the world to be burned down, by the fire he is going to one day set.

Erik can be ironic about himself, Erik can understand how far he is from being a decent man.

Erik therefore might be able to render a last service: to write down, as appendix to his book, a complete list of the works he has stolen and forged, the places where he has found them, and  their current whereabouts. He could go as far as giving names – although nobody can be urged to ask for his silver bullet. In short, Mr van den Berghen has an appointment with his honour.

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