The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. Ask anyone to list the most important artwork in history, and you can be sure that Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic painting will make that list. It is famous, valuable, and unquestionably important. It always has been.
Or has it?
Although the 500-year-old painting has long been revered by art historians, it wasn’t well known outside of that exclusive community until about 100 years ago. The cause for its celebrity status was a daring art heist that transformed an obscure work of art into the most famous painting in the world.
The person who is primarily responsible for the fame currently enjoyed by the Mona Lisa was a fellow by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia. He had been employed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, making protective glass cases for works of art. Peruggia developed a passion for the artwork of his native Italy, and he grew to resent how much of the Louvre’s collection had been removed from his beloved homeland during the conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte. He decided it was up to him to do something about it. He began to plan the most daring art heist in history.
Peruggia put his plan into action on Monday, August 21, 1911. There are conflicting stories about how he got into the Louvre that day. Some say that he entered the museum the day before and took advantage of the bustling Sunday crowds to find a place to hide overnight. Other accounts say that he entered on Monday morning by following some of the museum’s workers. Regardless of how he got in there, it was always his plan to make his move on a Monday. That was the day the museum was closed to visitors, allowing the Louvre’s staff to do all the things that had to be done without the distraction of crowds.
Peruggia dressed in a white smock, the typical uniform for museum workers. This allowed him to move around the museum without drawing undo attention. Having gotten this far, it was time for him to act. Remarkably, despite all his planning, he had yet to decide on which piece of art he was going to nab.
The would-be art thief knew that he wanted to steal a piece of Italian art. He wasn’t particularly choosy about which one. There were many paintings to choose from. Why, then, did he select Mona Lisa?
It all came down to logistics. Peruggia stood between five foot three inches and five foot four inches (about 1.6 meters). He wasn’t blessed with an abundance of upper body strength, either. Whatever work he swiped would have to be small enough for him to carry.
That’s why the Mona Lisa caught his attention. The painting is quite small, compared to other works of its day. Some of the paintings that hung near the Mona Lisa were over thirty feet (9 meters) long. In contrast, Mona Lisa measures 30 inches by 21 inches (76 x 53 cm). Its size and its Italian origin made it the perfect target for Peruggia’s plans.
Well, almost. As it turned out, Mona Lisa wasn’t strictly an Italian piece of artwork. Although Leonardo da Vinci was Italian, he spent the last few years of his life in France. It was during this time, while living in the court of King Francis I, that he completed the famous work of art and sold it to the king. In other words, Peruggia’s plan to restore Italian art to Italy failed in its fundamental goal.
Aside from this trifling detail, his plan played out pretty well. After taking Mona Lisa from the wall, he got as far as a stairwell before removing the painted wood panel from the frame. This reduced the weight of his purloined painting from over 200 pounds to a mere 18 pounds. He then pulled out a key so he could get into the locked stairwell. Despite having planned for this, he appears to have grabbed the wrong key, and the door wouldn’t open. Desperately, he tried to remove the door knob with a pair of pliers. That is the moment a plumber happened to walk by. Peruggia started to panic, thinking that the gig was up. Instead, the plumber saw a man with a white smock and assumed it was a fellow worker. He offered his assistance to get the troublesome door open.
From there, Peruggia made his way through the mostly-vacant museum onto the street. Once outside, he removed his white smock and used it to wrap the stolen painting. He boarded the 7:47 a.m. express train and fled without a single alarm being raised.
You are probably thinking that the theft of the Mona Lisa would immediately catch the attention of the museum’s staff. How long did it take for anyone to notice it was missing?
It is hard for us to imagine it, but up to this moment, the Mona Lisa simply wasn’t that big of a deal. Yes, it was a masterpiece, but the Louvre was filled with masterpieces from the same era. If you want evidence to support that notion, consider that it was over 28 hours before anyone noticed the painting was missing. On top of that, the person who first noticed its absence wasn’t even an employee of the Louvre. It was an artist who was visiting the museum to paint a picture of what the general scene of that part of the museum looked like. Once he got his canvas and paint ready, he happened to notice an empty spot on the wall where only four bare hooks gave any indication that something should be hanging there. He assumed a painting had been taken away by curators for maintenance or to be photographed. He asked a guard when the missing painting would be returned. The guard asked one of the curators, who said there shouldn’t be any paintings missing from that wall.
Parisian police were notified, and the resultant search triggered an international media frenzy. Newspapers around the world breathlessly reported the brazen theft. Speculation ran rampant about who could have pulled off such a spectacular heist. One further indication of how little the public knew about the Mona Lisa is that the Washington Post printed the wrong picture when reporting its theft. It used a different da Vinci painting called Monna Vanna. Some believe it is an earlier version of what would eventually become the Mona Lisa.
The police and museum staff conducted repeated searches of all 1,000 rooms of the Louvre. Extensive questioning of all staff and visitors occupied the full attention of the nation’s top law enforcement officials. Newspapers advertised rewards for information that would lead to the return of the painting.
One person who sought the reward was Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret. He had been the secretary of poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, an associate of Pablo Picasso. In 1907, he had stolen small Iberian sculptures from the Louvre and sold them to Picasso. One of those statues became the inspiration for Picasso’s masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Pieret broke into to the Louvre in 1911 to steal more small objects to sell. He was arrested a few days later and told the whole store about the thefts and the connection with Apollinaire and Picasso. The police questioned the men and placed Apollinaire under arrest on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa. He confessed to his involvement in the theft of the statues but denied any knowledge of the Mona Lisa’s fate. The case ended up in court some days later with both Apollinaire and Picasso suspected of the crime. While Apollinaire confessed, Picasso initially denied everything, even that he knew Apollinaire.
Apollinaire and Picasso considered destroying the evidence of the thefts by throwing the statues into the Seine. They repented of this, however, and told their stories to a newspaper reporter instead. The case was dismissed, with Judge Henri Drioux giving both men stern warnings about their behavior.
Months went by without any clue about the painting’s location or fate. The New York Times wrote that “a great number of citizens have turned amateur Sherlock Holmeses, and continue to advance most extraordinary theories.” Conspiracy theorists speculated that American banking magnate J.P. Morgan was responsible. Others pointed the finger at the Germans, as an elaborate attempt to disgrace the French. Reports came in from as far away as Brazil, Russia, and Japan, claiming to have seen the painting, but all leads turned out to be false. After more than two years, many began to wonder if the painting would ever be seen again.
In reality, it hadn’t gone far from its rightful home. Peruggia and the Mona Lisa were hiding in plain sight. He had the elusive work of art in his Paris boarding house, stashed away in the false bottom of a trunk. The media frenzy prevented him from acting on his plan to take the painting to Italy, but in his mind, that was merely a delay. He still intended to see Mona Lisa find a home on Italian soil.
After two years of waiting, Peruggia decided he could delay no longer. He sent a letter to Alfredo Geri, an art dealer in Florence, Italy. He said that he was the one who had stolen the Mona Lisa and offered to sell it to him. In case the offer of what had become the most famous painting in the world wasn’t enough, Peruggia threw in a 25% discount if he could be assured that the painting would be publicly displayed in Italy. Peruggia signed the letter “Leonard” and waited for a reply.
Geri was understandably dubious. Nevertheless, he conferred with Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery, and decided to invite the mysterious correspondent to bring the painting to Florence. On December 10, 1913, “Leonard” and his merchandise arrived.
Geri and Poggi met with Peruggia at the thief’s hotel room. 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.” They agreed to Peruggia’s 500,000-lire (USD $95,00) sales price (USD $2.6 million in 2023 values). Before the money could change hands, however, the prospective buyers said they would need to authenticate the painting. Peruggia agreed to let them take it to the Uffizi. He remained in his hotel room, confident that the painting would be authenticated and that he would soon have a tidy sum of money in his pocket.
Geri and Poggi had no intention of giving Peruggia anything. As soon as they verified the authenticity of the painting, they notified the authorities. On the afternoon of December 11, 1913, police arrested Peruggia at his hotel.
After arresting Peruggia, the police were able to match his fingerprints to ones that were found on the glass of the discarded frame back at the scene of the crime. After an absence of 28 months, the painting had been reclaimed and its thief formally charged.
Peruggia confessed and pleaded guilty to the charges. Through all of this, he passionately insisted that he was motivated by patriotism and a desire to restore Italian art to Italy. Despite the evidence that he stood to make a tidy profit from his crime, he won the sympathy of many Italians and became something of a folk hero. He was sentenced to one year and fifteen days in prison. He served seven months of his sentence before being released upon appeal.
Peruggia went on to fight in the Italian army during World War I. After the war, he returned to France, where he remained until he died in 1925.
Although Peruggia’s name is largely forgotten today, his theft of the Mona Lisa had the unintended effect of making it spectacularly famous. The painting was returned to the Louvre on January 4, 1914. Over the next two days, more than 120,000 people flocked to the museum to see it. The painting’s popularity has only increased since then. About 8 million visitors walk past it each year, gazing at its subject’s enigmatic expression.
The irony of this situation is that those millions of visitors walk past many works of art. In their haste to get to the Mona Lisa, they may not remember any of them. Any one of them, however, could be enjoying the same super-celebrity status as da Vinci’s painting, if only Peruggia’s hands had landed on it instead. According to art history professor Noah Charney, whichever artwork Peruggia would have stolen that day would have become the most famous in the world.
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. It is secure in a climate-controlled box, protected by bulletproof glass. In 1962, the painting was transported to New York City for a special exhibition. It was insured at that time for $100 million — the equivalent of $1 billion in 2023. According to Guinness World Records, it holds the record for the highest-known painting insurance valuation in history.
Had it not been for Vincenzo Peruggia, the Mona Lisa could be living out its days in a dimly-lit corner of a museum, known and appreciated by only a few. This is one situation where crime paid — but in a completely unexpected way.
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Categories: Accomplishments and Records, Art, Conspiracies, Crime, History
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