When The Mona Lisa Was Stolen: 1911's Art Theft That Made The Painting World Famous
Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vince at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France. Source: (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)
Even if you are not an art lover, you have seen reproductions of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo de Vinci’s famous 16th century portrait that has been hailed as a masterpiece. Today, we see the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile on t-shirts, coffee mugs, phone cases, and mousepads. She is so popular and recognizable that it is hard for us to believe that the painting hung in relative obscurity in Paris’ Louvre museum until it was stolen in 1911. The theft and the ensuing search for the painting brought world-wide attention to the Mona Lisa and made it the most-recognized painting in the world.
In August of 1911, a handyman working for the Louvre Museum named Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian national, hid overnight in a storage closet at the museum. In the wee hours of the morning, he crept out and removed the Mona Lisa from behind the protective glass case. During that time, there were no alarms in the museum and only a few overnight guards. Peruggia stuffed the painting under his shirt and headed for the door. He had a moment of panic when the door would not open from the inside like he assumed it would. But a plumber showed up to do some work and was kind enough to unlock the door for Peruggia.
The Discovery of the Crime
The Mona Lisa wasn’t reported missing for about 24 hours. It was not uncommon for the artwork on display to be routinely removed for cleaning and to be photographed, so the blank spot on the wall wasn’t a cause for immediate concern. It was actually a patron of the museum that noticed it first and questioned the whereabouts of the painting. This man was a budding artist who had set up his easel to paint nearby but he didn’t feel inspired without the Mona Lisa watching him, so he asked the guards when the painting would be returned. The guards checked with the museum’s photographers and cleaners and found that no one had the painting. It had disappeared.
Vincenzo Peruggia was a 32-year old handyman by trade. The Louvre Museum hired him to install glass cases around some of the paintings, including the Mona Lisa. Since he was the person who installed the glass around the painting, he knew how to remove it quickly and easily. Peruggia later claimed that he stole the painting because he staunchly believed that it should be returned to Italy, its country of origin. In fact, he thought he would be hailed a hero for returning the painting to the people of Italy.
The News Coverage
The bold art theft was front page news in France and, soon, all over the world. Photographs of the Mona Lisa appeared in newspapers across the globe. It was a viral news story, with ongoing coverage. The French media mocked the police investigation and implied that the government-run Louvre Museum was suffering from poor management. The search for the Mona Lisa was the hottest news story for more than two years — so hot that Peruggia was too scared to seek a buyer for the painting he stole. He hid the Mona Lisa in a trunk in his rented apartment in France.
Who could have stolen the Mona Lisa? The Paris police and the general public all had theories about the heist. According to one theory, American millionaires were buying priceless masterpieces on the black market and so it was thought that one of them may have commissioned the theft of the Mona Lisa. J.P. Morgan was questioned about it, as was Pablo Picasso. Or, the Germans could have been behind the robbery. During this time, tensions between France and Germany were reaching a tipping point and many French nationals believed the German Kaiser was responsible for the theft. Naturally, the police interviewed the people who worked at the Louvre. Peruggia was, in fact, interviewed twice by the authorities. Both times, the police concluded that he couldn’t possibly have pulled off such a sophisticated heist.
In December of 1913, about two and a half years after the Mona Lisa was stolen, Vincenzo Peruggia finally got up the nerve to send a letter to an art dealer in Florence, Italy. A meeting was set up between Peruggia, the art dealer, and the director of an art gallery in Florence. Then the art dealer saw the stamp on the back of the painting, he knew that he was dealing with the real Mona Lisa. He and the art gallery director asked Peruggia to leave the painting with them and they would wire the payment to him. But shortly after Peruggia returned home, the police stormed in and arrested him. The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre and Peruggia was sentenced to seven months in jail.
The Popularity of the Mona Lisa
The theft and subsequent recovery of the stolen Mona Lisa did wonders to boost the portraits star-power. Although it was always considered to be a masterpiece, it was not widely recognized until it was stolen. Peruggia’s intent to return the Mona Lisa to the people of Italy was misguided and illegal, but it did serve to make the painting the most recognized artwork in the world.
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