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Stolen Spanish tapestry repatriated

Work tracked across two continents since ‘79

- - Sunday, April 21, 2013

St. Vincent is back home in Spain after an absence of 34 years.

More precisely, the saint's image in a 16th century Flemish tapestry stolen from a Spanish cathedral in 1979 was flown back to Madrid over the weekend.

The 9-by-4-foot tapestry, recovered in Texas in 2012 by agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was formally handed over to the Embassy of Spain in Washington on Wednesday for "repatriation."

Spanish officials at the ceremony said the tapestry would be returned to the cathedral of St. Vincent, where the theft occurred, in Roda de Isabena, the fortified town in the Spanish Pyrenees that was a first line of defense against the Moorish occupiers of a large part of south and central Spain.

The vividly colored silk hanging in the form of a triptych depicts St. Vincent with the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in the center panel, with St. Valerius, who was bishop of Zaragoza (St. Vincent was his associate), shown in one side panel, and St. Ramon, bishop of Roda de Isabena, in the other.

Compared to the cathedral in Roda de Isabena, the tapestry dating from the 1500s is modern art. The Romanesque structure was built in 1067.

A deposition from the U.S. District Court in Texas names the alleged thief as Rene Alphonse Van Den Berghe, also known as Erik the Belgian. But there is no further mention of him in the official account of the investigation that led to the tapestry's recovery.

Spain's ambassador to Washington, Ramon Gil-Casares, called the recovery of the tapestry "a great example of successful cooperation" between the U.S. and Spain. In reality, the investigation involved specialized police in five countries.

The missing tapestry resurfaced in 2010, when a sharp-eyed museum curator in Spain saw it listed on the Internet in a catalog from the Brussels Antiques and Fine Arts Fair and notified the Spanish Heritage Protection Group, a branch of the Spanish Civil Guard. The stolen tapestry, it turned out, belonged to a Belgian gallery owner who told Belgian police that he had purchased it from a Milan gallery.

According to the court document, the Belgian later said he had bought it at a Munich auction house Hampel Galleries in partnership with the Milan gallery owner and a Paris art dealer.

The gallery owner, Yvan Maes De Wit, claimed to have no knowledge of the provenance of the tapestry because the auction house did not provide the information. Still, the tapestry was subsequently exhibited in art galleries in Paris (where it also was restored), Milan, and then at Mr. De Wit's own gallery in Mechelen, Belgium. In April 2010, Mr. De Wit sold the tapestry to a business in Houston for $369,000.

This brought in the special ICE unit that investigates cross-border art thefts. In 2011, acting on detailed information from the Spanish Civil Guard, ICE investigators questioned the Houston buyer. Spanish specialists journeyed to Houston and examined the tapestry using specialized computers to match its characteristics with the stolen tapestry. They identified it as the one taken from the cathedral in Roda de Isabena in 1979, and Madrid sent a legal request for its return. The tapestry was seized in November 2012.

"Today is another good day in the fight against international art thieves," ICE Director John Morton said at the hand-over ceremony. "The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border crime. Today we right that wrong."