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16th-century tapestry returns to Spain 34 years after theft

MADRID -- A 16th century religious tapestry which police suspect was stolen by one of Europe's most prolific art thieves from a cathedral in Spain in 1979 has returned to the country after an odyssey that took it to five countries.

Culture Minister Jose Ignacio Wert and Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz presented the wool and silk tapestry, depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, Thursday at a Madrid news conference a day after it was handed over to Spanish officials from the U.S. customs service.

The U.S. Homeland Security Investigations unit seized the artifact last November from the unidentified Texas business that had bought it at auction three years ago for US$369,000.

The tapestry had been stolen in December 1979 from the Cathedral of Saint Vincent in Roda de Isabena in the Aragon region of northeastern Spain “apparently” by Rene Alphonse Van Den Berghe, also known as Erik the Belgian, a police spokesman said.

Van Den Berghen is suspected of carrying out several heist of artworks from churches across Europe.

The tapestry was one several works of art that were taken during the break-in at the cathedral in Roda de Isabena, a fortified town in the Spanish Pyrenees, the Spanish culture and interior ministries said in a joint statement.

“Since its theft in 1979 the tapestry has made many trips as it was successively bought and sold in the art market and it passed through five countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, France and finally the United States,” it said.

The tapestry was identified in 2010 by a researcher from the Museum of Lleida, Carmen Berlabe, who spotted it on sale in an online catalogue of a gallery that specializes in the sale of old tapestries in the Belgian city of Mechelen, the police spokesman said.

Police then launched their investigation which led to its discovery in Houston.

The tapestry will now undergo a restoration by the Spanish Cultural Heritage Institute, a unit of the culture ministry.

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