Twenty-six hours passed before anyone noticed that the Mona Lisa had disappeared.
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of a 16th-century Florentine noblewoman with an enigmatic smile is one of the most recognized images in the world. Singer Nat “King” Cole celebrated it in a 1950 pop hit. Cartoonists parodied it. Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp scandalized the art world by painting a mustache on a shoddy reproduction.
This month, the Louvre is hosting a major da Vinci exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. The museum expects a huge crowd.
Da Vinci painted his masterpiece in 1507, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that critics began to regard the work as the pinnacle of Florentine Renaissance painting. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was not yet immediately recognizable. In fact, when the Washington Post first reported the theft and assessed the painting’s value at $5 million, the newspaper mistakenly published a photo of the Monna Vanna, a bare charcoal sketch that some believe da Vinci made in preparation for painting the Mona Lisa.
The flight changed the way the world viewed the Mona Lisa.
The breakage was discovered when a wealthy patron of the museum and amateur painter arrived at the Salon Carré to study “La Joconde”, as the French call it the Mona Lisa. Instead, he found an empty wall space.
The Louvre regularly removed works of art to photograph them, so a guard did not think of the missing work. But after several hours, he alerted the staff.
That evening, the police announced the theft. Louvre curator Georges Benedite told the press that only a prankster would steal such a valuable painting because it would be too difficult to cheat. On the other hand, the gendarmes thought that the thief would demand a ransom within 48 hours. But two days passed and no one showed up.
The thief left very few clues. Security found a doorknob on the stairs outside the building. A plumber remembers helping a man who removed a doorknob while locked in the stairwell.
A guard found the wooden frame and the glass box on a staircase. The frame had a thumb print. Paris police inspector Alphonse Bertillon, often credited with inventing the mug shot, believed in the new fingerprinting technique. However, he had 750,000 prints on file, too many to verify. Instead, he took the fingerprints of the 257 Louvre employees working that day.
The police distributed 6,500 leaflets with the image of the painting and offered a reward of 40,000 francs. Neighbors informed about neighbors. Colleagues informed about colleagues. Every lead led nowhere – although the museum recovered stolen loot.
On September 7, the police arrested the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, suspected of being involved in the theft of the Mona Lisa and some Egyptian statuettes from the Louvre. The poet’s secretary, Géry Pieret, who was also a petty art thief, had gone to the Paris-Journal newspaper after a falling out with Apollinaire, claiming to have information on the Mona Lisa.
Police questioned a terrified Apollinaire and eventually released him, but not before he renounced the name of a close friend, painter Pablo Picasso. Picasso knew nothing of da Vinci but returned Iberian Bronze Age statues, stolen by Pieret in 1907. (The statuary served as a model for his “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a work that helped inaugurate cubism.)
The Louvre kept an empty space open for the missing painting. Crowds of onlookers came to gaze at the vacant wall – among them the absurdist writer Franz Kafka and his close friend Max Brod.
Conspiracy theories abounded. Some thought a fake ring had taken it and sold fakes to naive but wealthy art lovers. Or a robber baron, possibly JP Morgan, had played the closing and bought the original. Others have speculated that Adam Worth, the criminal who once stole Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’, took it. However, Worth had died in 1902 and was buried in a pauper’s grave in London.
For more than two years, the painting remained untraceable. Then the thief came forward.
Vincenzo Peruggia, of Italian nationality, was a budding house painter, mason and portrait painter. He had briefly worked for a company that cut glass for the Louvre. His French colleagues relentlessly bullied him about his nationality, calling him a “macaroni”. The impetuous worker had previously been arrested for robbing a prostitute and for carrying a gun during a fight.
Because he was part of the glass crew that had worked at the Louvre, police questioned Perugia at his Paris apartment in 1911. They believed his alibi that he had worked at a different location on the day of the robbery. Unbeknownst to them, the Mona Lisa was in the apartment, stashed in a trunk.
In December 1913, Perugia wrote to Alfredo Geri, an antiques dealer who had advertised fine art in several Italian newspapers. Signing his letter “V. Leonard”, he indicated that he had the Mona Lisa. Wrongly believing that the painting had been taken by Napoleon during his plunder of Italian art, Peruggia expected a reward for the painting’s return to what he considered his homeland. (The painting had resided in France since 1516 when da Vinci gifted the work to his Gallic patron, King Francis I.)
Geri contacted Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and arranged a meeting with Peruggia in Milan. Poggi authenticated the painting and persuaded Peruggia to leave it on “custody”. Then they contacted the Italian police.
Christopher Marinello of Art Recovery International, a company that provides art recovery services to museums and private collectors, said Peruggia’s behavior – holding and hiding the painting for years – is common among art thieves.
“A typical art thief tries to get money. When they can’t hide it, they store it until they can get money,” Marinello said. art is stolen, its value goes down. This happened even in the 1800s when there was no internet. Today, everyone is aware of every art theft, whether it is a Matisse painting from the turn of the century or a 7 foot garden gnome.
In court, Peruggia appeared lopsided or – to use an Italian phrase, “fuori come un balcone” – outwardly like a balcony. Several times he shouted and interrupted the court. He argued with prosecutors. He argued with his lawyer. The judge was banging his gavel and telling him to calm down. Then Perugia set off again. First, he said he was working alone. Then he implicated two friends, neither of whom was involved.
All the while, he maintained that the theft was an act of patriotism.
“I will make my fortune, and it will come at once,” he wrote in a letter to his father four months after the theft.
Peruggia did not make a fortune. But his professed patriotism stirred the Italian jury. On June 5, 1914, he was given a lenient sentence – just one year and 15 days. He only served seven months. After having fought for Italy during the First World War, he returned to France, where he died in 1925.
And after a brief tour of Italy, La Gioconda – as the Italians call her – was sent back to France. It was then the most famous painting in the world.
An earlier version of this story referred to the Mona Lisa painting as a canvas; the painting is on wood. The story also erroneously says that Perrugia signed his letter to Alfredo Geri with Lorenzo’s name. He signed the letter V. Leonard. This file has been updated.