Benjamin Blake Evemy takes you on a journey through the most interesting and unbelievable heists the art world has seen, starting with the disappearance of the most valuable painting in the world.
The Mona Lisa is a painting that needs no introduction. But da Vinci’s iconic Renaissance masterpiece hasn’t always been the world-famous icon that it is now, and a large part of the-lady-with-the-mysterious-smile’s now widespread popularity, is due to a rather unconventional reason. On the morning of August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre, in what has been dubbed one of the greatest art heists in history.
August 20, 1911 was a Sunday, and the evening was perhaps a quieter time to visit Paris’ most famous museum. A man who was slight of stature and who wore a large moustache entered the Louvre and made his way inconspicuously to the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa was housed. Here he hid in a broom closet — and waited.
Morning arrived, and before the museum had opened its doors to the public, the man crept from the cover of the broom closet, clad in a white apron, which was the standard dress of Louvre employees. Once he had ensured that the coast was clear, he procured the 16th-century oil painting from where it hung on the wall and carried it to a close-by service stairwell. Here, he removed the painting from its glass frame and carefully wrapped it in a white sheet. Upon attempting to exit the stairwell, the thief found that the door was locked. He was trapped. Possessing unwavering equanimity, he placed the Mona Lisa down and attempted to disassemble the hindersome doorknob. Before he was able to complete the task and escape to freedom, he was met by a Louvre plumber who also making use of the stairs. In a stroke of almost unbelievable luck, the workman took the brazen burglar as a fellow employee, a brother in arms who was in need of a helping hand. So he offered his assistance in opening the locked door. The imposter thanked the employee, and made his way to the exit, the priceless painting hidden beneath the folds of his apron.
Surprisingly, the Mona Lisa wasn’t missed that day, because paintings were often taken down in order to be cleaned or photographed, so the fact that it wasn’t where it usually was, was not necessarily a great cause for alarm. But the day after, when French painter Louis Béroud visited the museum in order to sketch his painting Mona Lisa au Louvre, he found only four iron pegs where the painting should have hung. Bemused, he sought out the section head of the museum guards, who told him that the painting was likely with the photographers, being shot for publicity purposes. But when the artist checked back in with the section head a while later, it was confirmed that the Mona Lisa was not with the photographers. This was when museum staff realized something was terribly awry. The police were notified, and an anxiety-ridden search was carried out in vain, the only clue coming to light being the discovery of the painting’s glass frame discarded in the stairwell. That evening a museum official succinctly summed up the theft in an official statement: “The Mona Lisa is gone. Thus far we haven’t a clue as to who might have committed this crime.”
In order to investigate, the Louvre was closed for the entire week following the terrible discovery. Detectives dusted for prints and rigorously questioned museum staff. Checkpoints were set up to search pedestrians and vehicles. And even wanted posters, featuring not the mug shot of a criminal, but the Mona Lisa herself, were circulated. Ironically, the Mona Lisa had gained popularity with the general public, not by its presence, but by its absence. When the museum reopened a week later, thousands poured through its doors in order to gaze upon the empty space where it had once hung.
The investigation turned up one high-profile suspect. Police arrested Guillaume Apollinaire in September after linking the French poet to the earlier theft of two statuettes, which he had his secretary pilfer from the Louvre. During the interrogation, Apollinaire linked another high-profile suspect to the case: Pablo Picasso, who had purchased the stolen statues in order to use them as models for his work. Police questioned both in connection with the theft of the Mona Lisa, but their names were cleared due to lack of evidence. The investigation had hit a dead end.
Two years later, Alfredo Geri, a Florentine art dealer, received a letter in the mail. It was postmarked from Paris, and its sender was a mysterious man who signed off the missive simply as ‘Leonard’. The writer claimed that he was responsible for the theft of the Mona Lisa, and that he wished to see the masterpiece returned to Italian soil. Geri contacted Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery. The pair were doubtful of the letter’s veracity, but concluded that they would proceed with the offer presented in the letter. Geri invited the man to Florence, and several days later the three met in the letter-writer’s hotel room. An object wrapped in red silk was produced, and reverently placed upon the bedclothes. Once its veil was cast aside, the Florentines were in disbelief: the Mona Lisa lay there, smiling seductively up at them. The painting was immediately arranged to be taken to the Uffizi, and the man’s asking price of 500,000 lire was agreed to. Though, the pair never intended to actually pay the ransom for da Vinci’s enigmatic dame — instead, while at the gallery, the painting was authenticated, and the authorities subsequently contacted.
On December 11, 1913, the man known as ‘Leonard’ was arrested at his Florentine hotel room. Not surprisingly, the name which the letter was signed-off with was an alias. The man’s real identity was Vincenzo Peruggia, a former Louvre employee, who had actually aided in the construction of the glass case which held the Mona Lisa. Peruggia would have been extremely familiar with the routines and protocols of the museum, making him the perfect candidate for an art heist carried out there. The police had even brought him in for questioning on two separate occasions in relation to the theft. The Italian immigrant had kept the Mona Lisa prisoner in his apartment on the outskirts of Paris, hidden safely away beneath the false bottom of a wooden steamer trunk. Peruggia later reflected on being the Mona Lisa’s keeper: “I fell victim to her smile and feasted my eyes on my treasure every evening. I fell in love with her.”
Peruggia was sentenced to one year and fifteen days in prison, although he only ended up serving seven months. Though his efforts weren’t entirely in vain. The Mona Lisa was exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery for over two weeks before being returned to the Louvre, and Peruggia was hailed as a national hero by the Italian people. In the first two days following its return, an estimated 120,000 people visited the museum in order to gaze upon the returned masterpiece, and the sensation caused by her theft helped significantly to propel the painting into the public spotlight and to cement its place in the collective consciousness of the art lover and philistine alike. It seems that sometimes, at least in this case, crime does indeed pay.