On August 21, 1911, a very low-tech and unsophisticated art heist of a popularly obscure painting (at the time) from the Louvre. On that Monday morning, three men rushed out of the museum having been hidden all night. With them, they carried Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa! At the time, the Mona Lisa was little known outside the artistic community. In fact, it was so little known that it was not noticed as missing for over 24 hours after it walked out the front door. The brazen nature of the crime shocked the world and the Mona Lisa became a household name almost overnight.
Suspicion initially fell on prominent members of the art community – both artists and collectors alike. In particular, both banking magnate J.P. Morgan and renowned artist Pablo Picasso were questioned about perhaps hiring thieves to bring the da Vinci masterpiece into their private collections. In fact, the actual thief was one of the three men there that night – Vincenzo Perugia, a handyman who worked for the Louvre and had helped to install the glass box that protected the painting. Perugia meant to sell the painting immediately, but the press coverage was much more than he expected and, as such, the Mona Lisa was “too hot.”
Perugia hid his prize in a false bottom of a trunk in his Paris apartment. In late 1913, Perugia decided it would now be alright to try to sell the painting and brought it to an art dealer in Florence, Italy. The dealer looked over the painting and called the authorities who promptly arrested Perugia. The thief claimed patriotic motives for stealing the Mona Lisa saying that he was returning it to its Italian homeland after it had been stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, the Mona Lisa’s residence in France long predated Napoleon – it was purchased by the Sun King, Louis XIV who added it to his amazing collection at his palace at Versailles. After Perugia’s arrest, the Mona Lisa was returned to its gallery in the Louvre on January 4, 1914.
Featured Image: “Mona Lisa.” By C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition: image page – Cropped and relevelled from File:Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, from C2RMF.jpg. Originally C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition: image page, Public Domain.
Image 1. “Mona Lisa Stolen.” By Unknown – “The Two Mona Lisas” by Walter Littlefield, article from Century Magazine, Vol. 87, N° 4 (Feb 1914). Published by The Century CompanyDirect link to article, Public Domain.
Image 2. “Vincenzo Perugia.” By Unknown – http://www.yourbrushwiththelaw.com/_pictures/csac/perugia_mugshot.jpg, Public Domain.
Source: “The Theft That Made The ‘Mona Lisa’ A Masterpiece.” NPR: All Things Considered. 30 July 2011.