On This Day

mona lisa, vincenzo perugia, louvre

On This Day: “Mona Lisa” Stolen

August 21, 2011 05:00 AM
by Josh Katz
On Aug. 21, 1911, Vincenzo Perugia snatched the “Mona Lisa” from the Louvre, believing that it rightfully belongs to his native Italy.

“Mona Lisa” Disappears

Vincenzo Perugia, an employee at the Louvre, snuck into a closet at the museum before it closed the evening of Sunday, Aug. 20, and departed the next morning. During the night, he left his hiding place, eluded the guards, and snatched the “Mona Lisa.”

Louvre employees didn’t realize the painting had been stolen until Tuesday, thinking the museum was photographing it. When the news spread, the country shut its borders and the museum dismissed many of its workers. 

“Interestingly enough, ten months before the painting was stolen, the Louvre decided to have all masterpieces put under glass,” according to Milton Esterow, author of “The Art Stealers.” “Perugia was one of four men assigned to the job. Police questioned Perugia after the theft, but his easy-going, calm demeanor settled any doubts of his involvement.”

Seymour Reit, author of “The Day They Stole the Mona Lisa,” says that a fingerprint expert found a clear print at the scene of the crime, a promising find since authorities had fingerprints for a large portion of the population. Unfortunately, it was a left-hand fingerprint and there were only right-hand fingerprints in the collection.

First the theft caused shock. But then “the French temperament took over,” according to Reit. “There were jokes. There were riddles. There were cartoons. Somebody wrote to the newspapers and said, ‘When are they going to take the Eiffel Tower? That's obviously gotta go.’ They printed sheet music about the theft of the Mona Lisa, which they sang in cafes. There was a chorus line in one of the cabarets that came out all dressed as the Mona Lisa. I think they were topless!”

Conspiracy theories ran wild. Some thought an American collector was planning to keep the original stolen painting and send France back a counterfeit. In the pre-World War I atmosphere, others thought it was a German plot to embarrass the country and deflate its spirits.

A suspect in the case, avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire, even mentioned the possible involvement of artist Pablo Picasso in the crime. The cases against Apollinaire and Picasso were dropped, however.

On Dec. 10, 1913, over two years after the painting was stolen, Perugia met the antique art dealer Alfredo Geri in Florence. Using a different name, he told Geri he was in possession of the “Mona Lisa,” and said he wanted the painting returned to the country where it was born, as well as 500,000 lire in compensation. Officials at the Uffizi museum confirmed that it was the “Mona Lisa” and Perugia was arrested.

After Italy toured the painting throughout the country, it arrived back at the Louvre on Jan. 4, 1914. Perugia, considered a hero in Italy for his act of patriotism, was sentenced to only a little over a year in prison.

Background: The “Mona Lisa”

According to the Louvre Museum, Da Vinci painted the “Mona Lisa” between 1503 and 1506 in Florence. He then brought it to France and it eventually came into the possession of King Francois I.

The painting is “the earliest Italian portrait to focus so closely on the sitter in a half-length portrait,” drawing inspiration from the work Flemish painters such as Hans Memling, according to the Louvre. “However, the spacial coherence, the atmospheric illusionism, the monumentality, and the sheer equilibrium of the work were all new.”

Louvre curator Jean-Pierre Cuzin said, “The entire history of portraiture afterwards depends on the Mona Lisa. If you look at all the other portraits—not only of the Italian Renaissance, but also of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries—if you look at Picasso, at everyone you want to name, all of them were inspired by this painting. Thus it is sort of the root, almost, of occidental portrait painting.”

The identity of the subject of the painting has been debated for centuries. The most common theory is that the subject is the wife of a wealthy merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, who commissioned the painting. The Louvre officially calls the painting “Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo.”

Lisa Gherardini was first identified as the model by 16th century Italian writer Giorgio Vasari, who “relied on anecdotal evidence,” according to The Associated Press. Many have speculated that the “Mona Lisa” is Da Vinci’s idealization of women, Da Vinci’s lover, or even Da Vinci himself.

Recently, German historians discovered notes from 1503 scribbled in a book that identify Lisa Gherardini as the model.

Other Famous Art Heists

While Perugia apparently stole the “Mona Lisa” for the sake of Italian patriotism, that is not often the reason behind prominent art heists. According to The BBC, thieves usually hold the paintings for ransom to sell them back to the museum or sell them on the black market.

In terms of getting them back, John Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, which searches for stolen art, said, “The recovery rate for really good pictures is in excess of 20%—but you may have to wait 30 years.”

Many other infamous art thefts have occurred over the years, as described by the TruTV Crime Library. Edvard Munch's famous “Scream,” was stolen from Norway’s Munch Museum in August 2004 along with other paintings, after it was already pilfered once before in 1994. The criminals and the paintings remain at large.

On Dec. 22, 2000, thieves held up Stockholm's Swedish National Museum before it closed and escaped with two Renoir paintings and a Rembrandt worth $30 million. Eight men were arrested, but two paintings were never recovered.

In the biggest art theft on American soil, men disguised in police uniforms tied up security guards at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and ran away with 13 pieces of art valued at some $200 million to $300 million. The art is still lost, even though a jailed art thief said he would hand over the paintings for his release from prison.

In one of the more interesting legal loopholes, Dutch law allowed a thief to potentially become the owner of a stolen piece of public art 30 years after the crime was committed. In 2002, the Vincent Van Gogh Museum was robbed and the thieves were captured. But the paintings have not been found, and, if the prisoners are hiding them, they could be the legal owners of the paintings years down the line.

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