The theft of the Mona Lisa has been called the “art heist of the century,” but the caper itself was fairly rudimentary. On the evening of Sunday, August 20, 1911, a small, mustachioed man entered the Louvre museum in Paris and made his way to the Salon Carré, where the Da Vinci painting was housed alongside several other masterworks. Security in the museum was lax, so the man found it easy to stow away inside a storage closet. He remained hidden there until the following morning, when the Louvre was closed and foot traffic was light. At around 7:15 a.m., he emerged clad in a white apron—the same garment worn by the museum’s employees. After checking to see if the coast was clear, the thief strode up to the Mona Lisa, plucked it off the wall and carried it to a nearby service stairwell, where he removed its wooden canvas from a protective glass frame.
The lone hitch in the thief’s plan came when he tried to exit the stairwell into a courtyard. Finding the door locked, he placed the Mona Lisa—now wrapped in a white sheet—on the floor and tried to take apart the doorknob. He made little progress before one of the Louvre’s plumbers appeared on the stairwell. Rather than apprehending him, however, the plumber took the man for a trapped co-worker and assisted him in opening the door. With a friendly thank you, the thief made his getaway. Just a few moments later, he waltzed out of the Louvre with one of the world’s most valuable paintings tucked beneath his apron.
For more than a day, the Louvre’s staff had no clue that the Mona Lisa had been stolen. The museum’s paintings were often removed from the walls for cleaning or photography, so passersby took little notice of the blank space where the portrait was usually located. Finally, at around noon on Tuesday, a visiting artist asked a security guard to track the painting down. When the guard couldn’t locate it, the museum called the police and began a frantic search. It was only then that the Mona Lisa’s glass frame was discovered in the service stairwell. That same evening, a museum official announced the theft to the world. “The Mona Lisa is gone,” he said. “Thus far we haven’t a clue as to who might have committed this crime.”
News of the disappearance prompted a public outcry in France. “What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?” wondered the Parisian magazine L’Illustration. An army of detectives descended on the Louvre to dust for fingerprints and question witnesses. Cars, steamer passengers and pedestrians were searched at checkpoints, and police circulated “wanted posters” of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic half-smile. When the Louvre finally reopened a week later, thousands of people came to gawk at the empty wall where the painting had once hung.
Despite the media circus, the police investigation turned up few promising leads. One high-profile suspect was Guillaume Apollinaire, an avant-garde poet who had once called for the Louvre to be burned down. Apollinaire was arrested in September 1911 after police linked him to the earlier theft of two ancient statuettes, which had been lifted from the Louvre by his secretary. During his interrogation, he implicated his close friend Pablo Picasso, a 29-year-old Spanish artist who had purchased the statuettes and used them as models in his paintings. While the authorities questioned Apollinaire and Picasso in connection with the Mona Lisa’s disappearance, the two future art legends were later cleared due to lack of evidence.
As days turned into months, speculation on the Mona Lisa’s whereabouts ran rampant. The New York Times wrote that “a great number of citizens have turned amateur Sherlock Holmeses, and continue to advance most extraordinary theories.” Some argued that American banking magnate J.P. Morgan had commissioned the heist to bolster his private art collection; still others believed the Germans had masterminded it to disgrace the French. Alleged sightings filtered in from such far off locales as Brazil, Russia and Japan, but more than two years eventually passed without a break in the case. Many began to believe that Da Vinci’s 400-year-old masterpiece was lost for good.
Unbeknownst to police, however, the Mona Lisa was still in France. In fact, from the very the day that it was stolen, it had languished in a one-room apartment on the outskirts of Paris. Its thief was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant who had once worked at the Louvre as a handyman. He had even helped construct the Mona Lisa’s protective frame. After making off with the painting in August 1911, the 29-year-old had stashed it in his home in a wood trunk with a false bottom. As a former Louvre employee, he was questioned about the theft on two separate occasions, but police never considered him a serious suspect. Peruggia kept the Mona Lisa hidden for two years while he waited for the heat to die down. “I fell a victim to her smile and feasted my eyes on my treasure every evening,” he later said. “I fell in love with her.”
Peruggia finally made an attempt to sell his “treasure” in December 1913. Using the alias “Leonard,” he sent a letter to a Florentine art dealer named Alfredo Geri and informed him that he had stolen the Mona Lisa and wanted to repatriate it to Italy. After conferring with Giovanni Poggi, director of Uffizi Gallery, Geri invited Peruggia to Florence and agreed to take a look at the painting. A few days later, the three men gathered in Peruggia’s hotel room, where he produced a mysterious object wrapped in red silk. “We placed it on the bed,” Geri later wrote, “and to our astonished eyes the divine Mona Lisa appeared, intact and marvelously preserved.” The Florentines immediately arranged for the painting to be taken to the Uffizi. They also agreed to Peruggia’s 500,000-lire sales price, but they had no intention of actually buying the Mona Lisa. Instead, after having the portrait authenticated, they reported the thief to the authorities. On the afternoon of December 11, 1913, police arrested Peruggia at his hotel.
After a brief tour through Da Vinci’s homeland, the Mona Lisa was finally returned to the Louvre in January 1914. Peruggia, meanwhile, was charged with theft and put on trial in Italy. During his testimony, he claimed that national pride had inspired him to steal the painting, which he believed had been looted from his native Italy during the Napoleonic era. Peruggia was mistaken—Da Vinci had brought the Mona Lisa to France in 1516, and King Francois I had later purchased it legally—but the patriotic defense won him legions of admirers. Even after the prosecution presented evidence that he planned to shop the painting around to art dealers and sell it for profit, many Italians still considered him a national hero. In the end, he was sentenced to one year and 15 days in prison, but served just seven months before winning his release on appeal. He later fought in the Italian army during World War I before returning to France, where he died in 1925.
While Peruggia was eventually forgotten, his daring heist only made the Mona Lisa more famous. At least 120,000 people went to see the painting in the first two days after it was returned to the Louvre. Art lovers and critics launched into fresh speculation about its subject’s mysterious smile, and it was referenced in countless cartoons, advertisements, parodies, postcards and songs. “The Mona Lisa had left the Louvre a work of art,” author Dianne Hales later wrote. “She returned as public property, the first mass art icon.” Today, the world’s most recognizable painting remains in the Louvre, where it hangs in a climate-controlled box protected by bulletproof glass. It receives some 8 million visitors each year.
How a Notorious Art Heist Led to the Discovery of 6 Fake Mona Lisas
Human civilization has changed a lot over the past five millennia—but our instinct toward fakery, fraud, and flimflam seems to have remained relatively stable. In their new book Hoax: A History of Deception (Black Dog & Leventhal), Ian Tattersall and Peter Névraumont sift through 5000 years of our efforts to con others with scams and shakedowns of every description, from selling nonexistent real estate to transatlantic time travel. This excerpt reveals a convoluted art heist that netted not one, but six, of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous portrait(s).
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is, by a wide margin, the world’s best-known Renaissance painting. The pride of Paris’s Louvre museum, it is hard nowadays for a visitor to get a good look at. Not only do heavy stanchions and a substantial velvet rope keep art lovers at bay, but a jostling horde of phone-pointing tourists typically accomplishes the same thing even more effectively. While you can expect to scrutinize Leonardo’s nearby Virgin and Child with Saint Anne up close and in reasonable tranquility, you are lucky to catch more than a glimpse of the Mona Lisa over the heads of the heaving crowd. And that’s just getting to admire the painting: With elaborate electronic protection and constantly circulating guards, stealing the iconic piece is pretty much unthinkable.
At a time when the standards of security were considerably more lax, around noon on Tuesday, August 22, 1911, horrified museum staff reported that the Mona Lisa was missing from her place on the gallery wall. The Louvre was immediately closed down and minutely searched (the picture’s empty frame was found on a staircase), and the ports and eastern land borders of France were closed until all departing traffic could be examined. To no avail. After a frantic investigation that temporarily implicated both the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the then-aspiring young artist Pablo Picasso, all that was left was wild rumor: The smiling lady was in Russia, in the Bronx, even in the home of the banker J.P. Morgan.
Two years later the painting was recovered after a Florentine art dealer contacted the Louvre saying that it had been offered to him by the thief. The latter turned out to have been Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had worked at the Louvre on a program to protect many of the museum’s masterworks under glass.Vincent Peruggia Courtesy of Chronicle Books/Alamy
Peruggia reportedly told police that, early on the Monday morning before the theft was discovered—a day on which the museum was closed to the public—he had entered the Louvre dressed as a workman. Once inside, he had headed for the Mona Lisa, taken her off the wall and out of her frame, wrapped her up in his workman’s smock, and carried her out under his arm. Another version has Peruggia hiding in a museum closet overnight, but in any event the heist itself was clearly a pretty simple and straightforward affair.
Peruggia’s motivations appear to have been a little more confused. The story he told the police was that he had wanted to return the Mona Lisa to Italy, his and its country of origin, in the belief that the painting had been plundered by Napoleon—whose armies had indeed committed many similar trespasses in the many countries they invaded.
But even if he believed his story, Peruggia had his history entirely wrong. For it had been Leonardo himself who had brought the unfinished painting to France, when he became court painter to King François I in 1503. After Leonardo died in a Loire Valley château in 1519, the Mona Lisa was legitimately purchased for the royal collections.
So it didn’t seem so far-fetched when, in a 1932 Saturday Evening Post article, the journalist Karl Decker gave a significantly different account of the affair. According to Decker, an Argentinian con man calling himself Eduardo, Marqués de Valfierno, had told him that it was he who had masterminded Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa. And that he had sold the painting six times!
Valfierno’s plan had been a pretty elaborate one, and it had involved employing the services of a skilled forger who could exactly replicate any stolen painting—in the Mona Lisa’s case, right down to the many layers of surface glaze its creator had used. By Decker’s account, Valfierno not only sold such fakes on multiple occasions, but used them to increase the confidence of potential buyers, ahead of the heist, that they would be getting the real thing after the theft.
The fraudster would take a victim to a public art gallery and invite him to make a surreptitious mark on the back of a painting that he had scheduled to be stolen. Later Valfierno would present him with the marked canvas, which had allegedly been stolen and replaced with a copy.
This trick was actually accomplished by secretly placing the copy behind the real painting, and removing it after the buyer had applied his mark. According to Valfierno, this was an amazingly effective sales ploy: So effective, indeed, that by his account he managed to pre-sell the scheduled-to-be-stolen Mona Lisa to six different United States buyers, all of whom actually received copies.Museum officials present the (real) Mona Lisa after its return to Florence, Italy's Uffizi Gallery in 1913. The Telegraph, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Those copies had been smuggled into America prior to the heist at the Louvre, when nobody was on the lookout for them, and the well-publicized theft itself served to validate their apparent authenticity when they were delivered to the marks in return for hefty sums in cash.
According to Valfierno, the major problem in all this turned out to be Peruggia, who stole the stolen Mona Lisa from him and took it back to Italy. Still, when he was caught trying to dispose of the painting there, Peruggia could not implicate Valfierno without compromising his own story of being a patriotic thief, so the true scheme remained secret. Similarly, when the original Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, Valfierno’s buyers could assume that it was a copy—and in any case, they would hardly have been in a position to complain.
Decker’s story of Valfierno’s extraordinary machinations caused a sensation, and it rapidly became accepted as the truth behind the Mona Lisa’s disappearance. Perhaps this is hardly surprising because, after all, Peruggia’s rather prosaic account somehow seems a little too mundane for such an icon of Renaissance artistic achievement. The more flamboyant Valfierno version was widely believed, and is still repeated over and over again, including in two recent books.
Yet there are numerous problems with Decker’s Saturday Evening Post account, including the fact that nobody has ever been able to show for certain that Valfierno actually existed (though you can Google a picture of him). Only Peruggia’s role in the disappearance of the Mona Lisa seems to be reasonably clear-cut. Still, although it remains up in the air whether Valfierno faked his account, or whether Decker fabricated both him and his report, the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre today is probably the original.
Last month marked the 50th anniversary of New York City’s biggest jewel heist. On Oct. 29, 1964, Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy and a couple pals snuck into the American Museum of Natural History and made off with some of the largest, most famous, and priciest gems and jewels on the planet. The enormous Star of India was later recovered (from a locker in a Miami bus station), though others have never been found.
The craziest part of the robbery was how easy it was. The museum had basically no security, a window in the jewel room was usually propped open for ventilation, and none of the burglar alarms functioned. Which explains how those bozos could have pulled off the heist at all, given that they enjoyed their plunder for all of two days before being caught throwing suspiciously lavish parties at a hotel. (Image via Dinoguy2 CC BY-SA 2.5)
The Heist that Made the Mona Lisa Famous - HISTORY
Wikimedia Commons Vincenzo Peruggia, the ex-Louvre handyman who made off with the “Mona Lisa.”
Leonardo da Vinci is one of history’s best-known figures for both his scientific and artistic genius. And his most famous painting, the “Mona Lisa,” might not be the iconic masterpiece we know it to be today if not for its brazen theft by ex-Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia.
Peruggia was just shy of his 30th birthday when he walked into the Louvre on the morning of Aug. 21, 1911. He aroused no suspicion due to his previous employment as a handyman for the museum, and he was dressed in the uniform smock all employees wore at the time.
He waited until the Salon Carré, the wing in which da Vinci’s surprisingly small painting hung, was empty, and then he simply reached out, lifted the wooden panel off the wall, and carried it into a nearby service staircase. There, he wrapped the 30-by-21-inch painting in his smock, tucked it under his arm, and walked out.
Wikimedia Commons The “Mona Lisa” is nearly twice as valuable as da Vinci’s next most valued painting, “Salvator Mundi,” despite being one of his less- accomplished paintings.
Two years later, Peruggia spirited the painting across the Italian border and offered it to Alfredo Geri, a gallerist in Florence, and Peruggia was immediately arrested.
When asked why he’d stolen the now-famous painting, he claimed he’d done so out of patriotism, in the mistaken belief that it had been looted by Napoleon’s troops in the 1790s. The painting was actually given as a gift to the King of France in 1516.
This motivation seemed doubtful anyway, considering that Peruggia asked Geri for money in exchange for the painting. Regardless of Peruggia’s motivation, the “Mona Lisa” was displayed throughout Italy before returning to the Louvre in 1913.
Ironically, when Peruggia stole it, the “Mona Lisa” was one of da Vinci’s least-known, least-impressive, and least-valuable works. Its petty theft changed all that, however. Today, it’s worth at least $860 million, the highest insurance value for any painting in history.
100 Years Ago: The Mastermind Behind the Mona Lisa Heist
When the man who stole the Mona Lisa was apprehended in December 1913, he told the Italian police he had acted alone. But the story Post journalist Karl Decker heard from a potential accomplice was much more elaborate and devious–if it was true at all.
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Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa
One hundred years ago this week, police in Florence, Italy, announced they had recovered the Mona Lisa, which had been stolen from the Louvre two years earlier. They had also caught the thief–the mastermind behind the world’s most famous art theft.
But the culprit, Vincenzo Perugia, was no criminal genius, and the theft had not been a multimillion dollar art heist. Perugia was an Italian patriot who had wanted to return da Vinci’s painting to his native land, mistakenly believing it had been taken from Italy by Napoleon. (In fact, da Vinci gave the painting to the French king, Francis I, after becoming his court painter.)
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At his trial, Perugia described how he’d managed the theft. Having worked at the Louvre for several years, he was familiar with its layout, security, and maintenance staff. He also knew the Louvre was closed to the public on Mondays for maintenance. So he entered the Louvre on Sunday afternoon and locked himself into a broom closet overnight.
The next morning, he donned a worker’s smock and walked, unnoticed, into the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa hung. When the gallery was empty of any maintenance workers, he simply took the painting down from the wall and hurried off to a stairway. There, he knocked the painting out of its frame, threw his coat over it, and simply walked away, no doubt fighting the urge to run.
Perugia, now regarded in Italy as a patriot, received a light sentence in an Italian court. The painting toured briefly before returning to Paris. And that, presumably, was the end of the story. No gang. No elaborate heist. No scheme to sell the painting for a fabulous sum. No mastermind. Or was there?
One year later, journalist Karl Decker was sitting in a bar in Casablanca with an old acquaintance: Eduardo, Marques de Valfierno, a successful con man. And a chance remark by Decker prompted Valfiero to admit he was the man who’d planned the theft of the Mona Lisa.
His plan was an elaborate scheme to sell the painting, not once, but over and over, without ever letting go of the painting.
The key to his plan was a skilled forger who could capture “every little trick of the artist who had painted it, duplicating his brush strokes, matching colors so perfectly that copy and original were indistinguishable.” But Valfierno realized that replicating a painting wasn’t the biggest challenge in selling forged art. Many buyers were interested only in the value of the art few could tell a Murillo from a Rembrandt. The real challenge was explaining to buyers why the stolen painting they had just bought could still be seen in its gallery. Valfierno got around this objection by assuring the buyer it was merely a copy.
Later, he developed a more convincing method to prove the forgeries he sold were ‘authentic.’ He would accompany a buyer to a public gallery and take him to a painting he proposed to steal. When no one was looking, Valfierno told the buyer to lift the picture frame and make a mark on the back of the canvas with a pen. A week later, Valfierno would bring the painting to the buyer, and there, on the back, was the buyer’s original mark.
The trick, Valfierno told Decker, was to access the painting ahead of time, just long enough to slip a forged copy inside the picture frame so that it rested behind the original. When the buyer arrived, he would mark the back of the forgery. After the buyer left, Valfierno simply slipped the forgery out of the frame, leaving the original untouched, which the buyer believed was a copy.
This ploy proved so successful, Valfierno was tempted to think of an even more lucrative scheme. Why not try to sell a truly legendary painting? Why not the Mona Lisa? And why not sell it more than once?
So Valfierno found six separate art collectors in America willing to pay millions for the stolen Mona Lisa. Valfierno’s forger then painted six Mona Lisa forgeries. Early in 1911, the forgeries were brought through New York customs one at a time, to avoid attracting attention. Then Valfierno sent Vincenzo Perugia into the Louvre along with two accomplices.
Perugia needed the extra men, Valfierno told Decker, because the painting “weighed–panel, cradle, frame, shadow box, and glass–nearly two hundred and twenty pounds.”
Once the painting was in Valfierno’s possession, he told his associates in New York to approach the buyers and tell them the painting was on its way. The very public disappearance of the Mona Lisa convinced buyers they had purchased the original. After the money returned from America, the gang split up the loot and separated.
The only problem with the plan was Perugia. He stole the Mona Lisa again, this time from Valfierno, and took it to Italy with the intention of selling it. When caught, he said nothing about Valfierno, his accomplices, the forgeries, or their buyers, fearing it would damage his alibi of being a patriotic thief.
When the original was returned to Paris, the American buyers were free to assume that it was simply another forgery. If not, they were free to go to the authorities, where they would probably be arrested as an accessory to very grand larceny.
It was an intriguing story and, for years, the Post story (“Why and How the Mona Lisa Was Stolen,” June 25, 1932) was accepted as the full explanation. Several sources still claim the theft proceeded according to Valfierno’s plans.
But critics have pointed out several flaws. For example, Valfierno claimed three men were needed to lift the 220-pound Mona Lisa. However, a Louvre source reports that the Mona Lisa weighs only 20 pounds. Perugia could easily have carried off the masterpiece without any help.
Valfierno tells Decker of a tense moment when the theft is stalled because a stolen key doesn’t fit an exit door. But a helpful guard comes along and unlocks it for Perugia and his confederates. This incident is never mentioned in the subsequent investigation.
Valfierno’s brilliant scheme was not an original stroke of genius, either. Back in 1911, a New York paper reported a thief named Eddie Geurin had talked of stealing the Mona Lisa and selling copies to rich collectors.
Once you question whether Valfierno made up the story, you have to wonder whether Decker made up Valfierno. Several articles about the theft show a photograph of an Argentine con man of that name, but you’ll find no information about him other than what Decker wrote.
There is really no information to substantiate the story we only have the word of Karl Decker. As such, it remains a story.
It would have been discredited as fact by now except that the so many people want to hear the version of the story with a criminal mastermind, whether or not it’s true.
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From courtrooms to cultural campaigns
While the original dispute may have played out in a courtroom, today’s manifestation of the conflict comes in the form of cultural campaigns and online spats.
In 2011, The Telegraph reported on art historian Silvano Vinceti’s efforts to raise 100,000 signatures by 2013 in support of the return of the painting to Italy. The campaign was dismissed by Vincent Pomarede of the Louvre who argued that ‘any attempt to move the painting would cause incalculable damage.’
One year later, a petition containing more than 150,000 signatures called on the Louvre to return the Mona Lisa to Florence, with the aim of reinstating the painting in the Uffizi Gallery. The National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage made a formal – but ultimately unsuccessful – request to France’s Culture Minister at the time.
And it hasn’t stopped there.
From the world of celebrity to the World Cup, it seems anything and everything can act as a catalyst from which to ignite discussion around Mona Lisa’s heritage.
Indeed, during a promotional tour in 2014 for his film The Monuments Men, George Clooney is said to have weighed in on the subject of ownership. According to reports published at the time, the actor supposedly encouraged France to return the portrait to Italy, ultimately drawing further attention to the friction which exists between the two nations on the issue.
And the bone of contention made headlines again just last year when the Louvre tweeted a photoshopped image of the Mona Lisa wearing the French football strip following France’s World Cup win in July 2018.
Unsurprisingly, the move went down like a lead balloon among Italian fans, who took to Twitter to rage against the museum. Naturally, it wasn’t long before alternative versions of the image began circulating online, with irate Italians carefully doctoring the painting to illustrate Mona Lisa’s supposed support of the Italian football team.
Who Stole the Mona Lisa?
On Monday morning, Aug. 21, 1911, inside the Louvre museum in Paris, a plumber named Sauvet came upon an unidentified man stuck in front of a locked door. The man—wearing a white smock, like all the Louvre’s maintenance staff—pointed out to Sauvet that the doorknob was missing. The helpful Sauvet opened the door with his key and some pliers. The man walked out of the museum and into the Parisian heatwave. Hidden under his smock was Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”
The art theft of the century helped make the Mona Lisa what she is today. The world’s popular newspapers—a new phenomenon in 1911—and the French police searched everywhere for the culprit. At one point they even suspected Pablo Picasso. Only one person was ever arrested for the crime in France: the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. But the police found the thief only when he finally outed himself.
Stealing “La Joconde”—the woman in the portrait is probably the Florentine silk merchant’s wife Lisa del Giocondo—was not particularly difficult. The main thing it took was nerve. Like the Louvre’s other paintings, she was barely guarded. She wasn’t fixed to the wall. The Louvre was closed on Mondays. August is Paris’s quietest month. On that particular Monday morning, the few caretakers were mostly busy cleaning.
At 7.20am the thief was probably hiding in the storage closet where he may have spent the night. All he had to do was wait until the elderly ex-soldier who was guarding several rooms had wandered off, then lift the frame off its hooks, remove the frame from the painting, and shove the wooden panel on which Da Vinci had painted under his smock. The thief had chosen the Mona Lisa partly because she was so small: just 53cm x 77cm. His one stumble was finding the door to his escape locked. He had already removed the doorknob with a screwdriver before the plumber arrived to save him. By 8.30am, Mona Lisa was gone.
Twelve hours later, writes the French author Jérôme Coignard in Une femme disparaît, one of several books on the crime, the caretaker in charge reported that everything was normal. Even the next morning, Tuesday, nobody had yet noticed Mona Lisa’s absence. Paintings in the Louvre often disappeared briefly. The museum’s photographers were free to take works to their studio at will, without signing them out.
When the painter Louis Béroud arrived in the Louvre’s Salon Carré on Tuesday morning to sketch the Mona Lisa, and found only four iron hooks in the wall, he presumed the photographers had her. Béroud joked with the guard: “Of course Paupardin, when women are not with their lovers, they are apt to be with their photographers.” But when Mona Lisa was still absent at 11am, Béroud sent Paupardin to ask the photographers when she would be back, recounts the American author R.A. Scotti in her excellent recent account, Vanished Smile. The photographers said they hadn’t taken her and the alarm was raised. In the corner of a service stairway, police found the glass box that had contained the painting, and the frame donated two years earlier by the Comtesse de Béarn.
The newspapers put the theft on their front pages. “We still have the frame,” added the Petit Parisien daily in a sarcastic strapline. The far-right Action Française newspaper blamed the Jews.
Critics had pointed out the lack of security, but the museum had taken only a few eccentric corrective measures: teaching the elderly guards judo, for instance. Jean Théophile Homolle, director of all France’s national museums, had assured the press before leaving on his summer holidays that the Louvre was secure. “You might as well pretend that one could steal the towers of the cathedral of Notre-Dame,” he said. After the theft, the French journalist Francis Charmes would comment: “La Joconde was stolen because nobody believed she could be.”
“Some judges regard the painting as the finest existing,” noted The New York Times. But even before Mona Lisa disappeared she was more than a painting. Leonardo’s feat was to have made her almost a person. “Mona Lisa is painted at eye level and almost life-size, both disconcertingly real and transcendent,” writes Scotti. Many romantics responded to the picture as if to a woman. Mona Lisa received love letters and was given a touch more surveillance than the Louvre’s other works, because some visitors stared at the “aphrodisiac” painting and became “visibly emotional”, writes Coignard. In 1910, one lover had shot himself before her eyes. After the theft, a French psychology professor suggested that the thief might be a sexual psychopath who would enjoy “mutilating, stabbing, defiling” Mona Lisa.
But nobody knew who the thief was, nor how he would profit from his haul. Monsieur Bénédite, the Louvre’s assistant curator, told The New York Times: “Why the theft was committed is a mystery to me, as I consider the picture valueless in the hands of a private individual.” If you had the Mona Lisa, what could you do with her?
The stricken Louvre closed for a week, but when it reopened, on Tuesday August 29, queues formed outside for the first time ever. People were streaming in to see the empty space where Mona Lisa had hung. Unwittingly, Coignard writes, the Louvre was exhibiting the first conceptual installation in the history of art: the absence of a painting.
Among the many who saw it were two Prague writers travelling through Europe on the cheap: Max Brod and Franz Kafka. On their travels they had had a brilliant idea: to write a series of guidebooks (On the Cheap in Switzerland, On the Cheap in Paris, etcetera) for other budget travellers. Kafka always was ahead of his time.
Meanwhile, the Mona Lisa was becoming a sensation. “In a thousand years,” wrote the Da Vinci-devotee Joséphin Péladan, “people will ask of the year 1911: ‘what did you do with the Joconde?’” Scotti writes: “Chorus lines made up with the face of Mona Lisa danced topless in the cabarets of Paris … Comedians asked, ‘Will the Eiffel Tower be next?’”
The painting was celebrated in new popular songs (“It couldn’t be stolen, we guard her all the time, except on Mondays”). Mona Lisa postcards sold in unprecedented numbers worldwide. Her face advertised everything from cigarettes (“I only smoke Zigomar”) to corsets. In fact, no painting had ever previously been reproduced on such a scale. As Scotti said, she had suddenly become both “high culture” and “a staple of consumer culture.” The Dutch painter Kees van Dongen was one of the few to puncture the hype: “She has no eyebrows and a funny smile. She must have had nasty teeth to smile so tightly.”
The French police were under international pressure to find the thief. All they had to go on was a fingerprint he had left on the wall, and the doorknob he had thrown into a ditch outside. Sauvet, the plumber who had let him out, was shown countless photographs of Louvre employees past and present, but could not recognise the thief. Employees and ex-employees were interrogated and fingerprinted—a newfangled technique in 1911—but nobody’s print matched the thief’s.
The Parisian police suspected the heist must be the work of a sophisticated ring of art thieves. In late August, they thought they had found them. A bisexual Belgian adventurer named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret had appeared at the offices of Le Journal, and sold the newspaper an Iberian statuette that he had previously stolen from the Louvre. He also talked of having stolen a statue of a woman’s head from the museum, and having sold it to a painter friend. If these crooks had taken the statuettes, the police reasoned, they probably had the Mona Lisa too.
Géry often stayed in Paris with his friend Apollinaire, the poet, who had once called for the Louvre to be burned down. Apollinaire and Picasso were chums. After Géry’s revelations, the two men panicked. Picasso still kept two ancient Iberian statuettes, stolen by Géry, in his cupboard in Montmartre. In fact he had used the heads as models for a brothel scene he had painted in 1907. “’Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ was the first picture to bear the mark of cubism,” Picasso recounted years later. “You will recall the affair in which I was involved when Apollinaire stole some statuettes from the Louvre? They were Iberian statuettes … Well, if you look at the ears of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, you will recognise the ears of those pieces of sculpture!” Perhaps he had even commissioned Géry’s theft with the Demoiselles in mind.
At midnight on September 5, Picasso and Apollinaire sneaked out of Picasso’s apartment and lugged the statuettes for miles in a suitcase across Paris. They had agreed to dump them into the River Seine. But, writes Scotti, in the end they didn’t dare. On September 7, detectives arrested Apollinaire. He broke down and named Picasso. Both men cried under interrogation. Yet in court Picasso contradicted everything he had told police, and swore ignorance of the whole business. Shown Apollinaire, he said: “I have never seen him before.” Eventually the police gave up on them.
In December 1912 the Louvre hung a portrait by Raphael on its blank wall. The Mona Lisa had been given up for dead.
The world had mostly forgotten her when on November 29 1913 an antique dealer in Florence named Alfredo Geri received a letter postmarked Poste Restante, Place de la République, Paris. The author, who signed himself “Leonardo”, wrote: “The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an Italian.”
Geri showed the letter to Giovanni Poggi, director of Florence’s Uffizi gallery. Then Geri replied to “Leonardo.” After some toing-and-froing, “Leonardo” said it would be no trouble for him to bring the painting to Florence.
Geri’s shop was just a few streets from where Da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa 400 years before. On the evening of December 10 “Leonardo” unexpectedly walked in. He was a tiny man, just 5ft 3in tall, with a waxed moustache. When Geri asked whether his Mona Lisa was real, “Leonardo” replied that he had stolen her from the wall of the Louvre himself. He said he wanted to “return” her to Italy in exchange for 500,000 lire in “expenses.” He had only 1.95 French francs in his pocket.
Geri arranged to come with Poggi to see the painting in “Leonardo’s” room in the Tripoli-Italia hotel the next day. They went up to room 20 on the third floor. Leonardo locked the door, dragged a case from under his bed, rummaged in it, threw out some junk, pulled out a package, and unwrapped it to reveal the Mona Lisa.
The three men agreed that Poggi and Geri would take the painting to the Uffizi to authenticate it. On their way out the two were stopped by an alert hotel clerk, who thought they were stealing a painting from the hotel wall. At the Uffizi, Poggi established from the pattern of cracks in the painting that it was the real thing. When news reached the Italian parliament—”The Mona Lisa has been found!”—a fist-fight between deputies immediately turned into embraces, writes Scotti.
After handing over the painting, “Leonardo” had calmly gone sightseeing in Florence. But to his surprise, he was arrested in his hotel room by Italian police. As Monsieur Bénédite of the Louvre had warned, the picture had proven valueless in the hands of a private individual.
The thief turned out to be Vincenzo Peruggia, a 32-year-old Italian who lived in Paris. He was a house painter-cum-glazier. He suffered from lead poisoning. He lived in one room at 5 rue de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis, in a neighbourhood of eastern Paris that even today, a century on, is largely immigrant and not entirely gentrified. The Mona Lisa had spent two years mostly on his kitchen table. “I fell in love with her,” Peruggia said from jail, repeating the romantic cliché. The court-appointed psychiatrist diagnosed him as “mentally deficient”.
The French police really ought to have found him. Peruggia had briefly worked in the Louvre. In fact, he had made the Mona Lisa’s glass frame—the very one he had removed that August morning. A detective had even visited his apartment, but had failed to spot the painting. Moreover, Peruggia had two previous criminal convictions for minor incidents (one a scuffle with a prostitute) so the police had his fingerprints. Unfortunately, the famous detective Alphonse Bertillon—the real-life French Sherlock Holmes—who was on the Mona Lisa case, only catalogued the right fingerprints of suspects. Peruggia had left his left print on the Louvre’s wall.
He was locked up until his trial began in Florence on June 4 1914. Questioned by police, journalists, and later in court, Peruggia gave varying contradictory accounts of how exactly he had got in and out of the Louvre. He had walked out, carrying the painting, “with the greatest nonchalance”, he told the court. He said he had initially got on the wrong bus, and had finally taken the Mona Lisa home in a taxi.
Under questioning, Peruggia emerged as the kind of disgruntled immigrant who in a different time and a different place might have turned to terrorism instead of art theft. In Paris he had often been insulted as a “macaroni.” French people had stolen from him, and put salt and pepper in his wine. When he had mentioned to a colleague at the Louvre that the museum’s most esteemed paintings were Italian, the colleague had chuckled.
Peruggia had once seen a picture of Napoleon’s troops carting stolen Italian art to France. He said he had become determined to return at least one stolen painting, the handily portable Mona Lisa, to Italy. In fact, he was labouring under a gargantuan misapprehension: the French hadn’t stolen the Mona Lisa at all. Da Vinci had spent his final years in France. His last patron, the French king François I, had bought the painting, apparently legally, for 4,000 gold crowns.
After Peruggia’s arrest there had been a brief flare-up of patriotic “peruggisme” in Italy, but it soon died down. Most people were disappointed in Peruggia’s calibre. He was more Lee Harvey Oswald than the criminal mastermind they had imagined. “He was, quite clearly, a classic loser,” says Donald Sassoon in his book Becoming Mona Lisa. Despite Peruggia’s claims to patriotism—”I am an Italian and I do not want the picture given back to the Louvre”—it emerged in court that he had visited London to try to flog the painting to the dealer Duveen, who had laughed at him.
The mention of this story prompted Peruggia’s only show of anger during the trial. He had previously described the attempted sale himself, but in court he loudly denied it. One judge said, “Nevertheless, your unselfishness wasn’t total. You did expect some benefit from restoration.”
“Ah, benefit, benefit,” sighed Peruggia. “Certainly something better than what happened to me here.” The courtroom laughed.
Yet he had compiled lists of dealers and art collectors, who, he presumably hoped, might buy his painting. He had also written to his family in Italy saying that soon he would be rich. (“Romantic words, your honour,” Peruggia explained in court.) Joe Medeiros, an American filmmaker who is finishing a documentary about the theft, believes Peruggia was motivated chiefly by an immigrant’s pride. “He was a guy who wasn’t typically respected,” says Medeiros, “and I think he thought he was better than he was given credit for, so he set out to prove it. And I guess in some strange, perverse way he did prove it. He wasn’t as dumb as people thought.”
The Heist That Made The Mona Lisa Famous
Mona Lisa, a name that strikes a chord with every individual regardless of them being artistic or not. A painting so electrifying that every household wants one hanging on their walls. Painted by the great Italian artist, mathematician, scientist and poet, Leonardo Da Vinci, the majestic piece conceals many mysteries.
It is said that, Mona Lisa was the mistress of a famous man from Florence, Italy, and it is assumed that he made Da Vinci paint her portrait. Some argue that it is purely an imaginative piece of art.
But what is it that makes Mona Lisa such a masterpiece? And Why did the famous illustrator, Pablo Picasso get into trouble for it?
Historians say that the portrait of the Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci between 1503-17. However, some argue that it was an image captured by the then French Emperor, King Francois-1 and kept in his harem.
Therefore, the portrait of Mona Lisa was then returned to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France in 1797. The portrait has been preserved in there ever since.
It was not until 1911 that the rest of world knew much about the Mona Lisa except France. The Mona Lisa’s painting became famous all over the world owing to a theft.
On 21 st August, 1911, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre museum was stolen by some thugs. Previously, the painting had been given for a photoshoot of a movie which made the museum in-charge suspect the film-makers of the robbery. He complained to the police about how long the filmmakers had not returned the valuable painting.
The museum was closed for a few weeks as part of the investigation. During the investigation, police suspected the French writer, Guillaume Apollinaire because Apollinaire was known to have contacts with people who stole and sold paintings from museums. Soon he was taken into custody.
At the trial, Apollinaire mentioned the name of his friend, the famous painter, Picasso, as the one behind the robbery on the pretext that Picasso had also previously stolen precious items and paintings. In the wake of this allegation, the police arrested Picasso.
Picasso was eventually released after learning that it was the museum staff itself who were involved in the burglary.
Vincenzo Perugia, one of the staff members who helped frame the Mona Lisa at the museum, was the main culprit. Vincenzo was Italian just like Leonardo, the creator of the painting, and he was of the strong belief that The Mona Lisa rightly belonged in Italy and not France.
Popularity of the Mona Lisa
Right after the theft, Vincenzo hid the picture in his house for two years.
Others involved in the theft were making innumerable copies of Mona Lisa paintings and selling them all over America.
The original picture was then sold to a museum director in Florence.
It was exhibited in the museum for a few weeks in 1913. When the police learned of the new museum exhibiting the stolen painting, they managed to track down the miscreants.
Vincenzo was arrested and the picture was returned to the museum in France.
When leading illustrator, Pablo Picasso had been arrested in connection with the theft of Mona Lisa, the popularity of the painting increased drastically. People from all over the world gathered to see the magnificent work of art.
During world war 2, the image of the Mona Lisa was moved from the Louvre museum to other locations, and once things started to look up for France, the painting was brought back to the original location.
While the real Mona Lisa portrait is still there in the frame of a bullet proof glass. Fake pictures are available to people all over the world.
Mona Lisa heist: how do you steal the world’s most famous painting?
Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world, partly thanks to this crime. In 1911, it went missing for two years, seemingly snatched by an invisible thief. The police were confounded, the press enchanted. They were both asking the same question – how was the Mona Lisa stolen?
This competition is now closed
Published: August 21, 2020 at 4:05 am
In 1911, the Mona Lisa shot to global stardom when she became the victim of one the most daring art heists in history. Overnight, the famed painting by Leonardo da Vinci seemingly disappeared into thin air – and the police were baffled.
Modernist enemies of traditional art were suspected of the crime, with the finger of blame pointed at avant-garde poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire (who was arrested and then released) as well as Pablo Picasso.
For two years the whereabouts of the painting remained a mystery. Then in November 1913, the thief – a petty criminal named Vincenzo Peruggia – contacted a Florentine art dealer and offered to bring him the painting for a reward of 500,000 lire.
Who stole the Mona Lisa?
Peruggia had moved to Paris in 1908 and had worked at the Louvre for some time. Dressed in a white smock worn by Louvre employees, he had hidden inside the gallery until it closed for the night. He then removed the painting from its frame and strolled out with it hidden under his smock when the museum opened as usual the following morning.
The theft was genius in its simplicity – Peruggia, in his regulation smock, had attracted no notice and was out of the area by the time the theft was realised. His reason for the theft? Peruggia believed that the painting had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon and that he was simply returning it to its true home in Italy.
He was arrested, but served just eight months in prison thanks to a sympathetic Italian tribunal and a psychiatrist who testified that he was “intellectually deficient”. Much rejoicing accompanied Mona Lisa’s return to Paris, while Peruggia became something of a hero to the Italian people, receiving love letters and cakes from female fans whilst in prison.
The disappearance of the Mona Lisa
For centuries, the Mona Lisa attracted only a few art enthusiasts and other visitors. But on August 21, 1911, someone took great notice of the painting and stole it right off the museum’s wall. A day passed before the museum realized that the Mona Lisa was gone.
The Louvre closed for a week to investigate the heist. The media covered the investigation, including the several conspiracy theories about what happened: the heist was nothing but a publicity stunt by the Louvre, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was the thief, or the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was behind it.
A week later, the Louvre reopened, and thousands of people came to see the empty wall where the Mona Lisa had hung. And as days turned into months, more speculations on the painting’s whereabouts were published. The articles further sensationalized the heist by quoting Walter Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa. Soon, the news of the disappearance reached New York, Brazil, Japan, and the rest of the world.
In 1913, Alfredo Geri, an art dealer from Florence, Italy, received a letter from Vincenzo Peruggia, who claimed to have the Mona Lisa. The police arrested Peruggia and found the Mona Lisa in his apartment, just a few blocks from the museum. Peruggia confessed he lifted the masterpiece from the wall, put it under his tunic, and quietly walked out of the Louvre. His motivation? He firmly believed that the Mona Lisa belonged to an Italian museum, not in a French one like the Louvre.
Once the painting was back to the Louvre, thousands of people from all over the world came to see it. The portrait of a woman with a captivating gaze and a mysterious half-smile became an overnight sensation. But it has sustained its fame, making it today’s most famous artwork in the world.
Beyond the Mona Lisa’s captivating gaze and enigmatic smile, a daring heist made it more famous and mysterious. Pater may be right with its disappearance, the Mona Lisa might have learned the secrets of the grave and beyond.
The famous Mona Lisa was stolen (1911)
The famous poet Guillaume Apollinaire was initially suspected of stealing the Mona Lisa, who once said that the entire Louvre should be burned.
The most famous theft of works of art in history, when the most famous painting in the world was stolen – Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, took place on August 21, 1911. It was stolen from the Louvre in Paris by one of the museum’s employees, named Vincenzo Peruggia. His motives were twofold. On the one hand, he was Italian and believed that the Mona Lisa should be exhibited in Italy because it was painted by Leonardo. Peruggi’s friend, on the other hand, copied the images, so Peruggia believed that in the event of the theft of the original, the price of the copies would rise.
The disappearance of the Mona Lisa was noticed by one museum visitor the next day. Instead of the Mona Lisa, only four nails remained where she stood. He asked the head of security where the picture was, and he thought he was taking a picture. It was later established that the picture was not with the photographer, so an alarm was raised. The Louvre Museum is closed for a week for investigation.
The famous poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who once said that the entire Louvre should be burned, was initially suspected of stealing the painting. Apollinaire was arrested and imprisoned. He tried to shift the blame to Pablo Picasso, who was also detained. In the end, both were acquitted.
It turned out that Vinzenzo Peruggia, who was an employee of the Louvre, stole the painting by entering the museum during normal business hours (when he was not on duty) and hiding in a broom closet. When the museum closed, he went outside carrying the Mona Lisa hidden under his coat.
Vinzenzo Peruggia hid the Mona Lisa for about two years in his Paris apartment. He was arrested only when he was trying to give a painting to the famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence and get the award in return. Peruggia believed that the painting should be hung in some Italian gallery. After his arrest, he was sentenced to 6 months in prison, but many Italians celebrated him for his patriotism.