Art Crimes: The Stealing of Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (digitally retouched to reduce the effects of aging) (1)

Mona Lisa is back in the spotlight yet again! Recently, a man disguised as an elderly woman jumped out of a wheelchair and attacked the Mona Lisa and her high-tech glass encasement with cake.2

Thankfully the painting was not damaged in the attack.

The Mona Lisa ... is a half-length portrait painting by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. Considered an archetypal masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, it has been described as "the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world". The painting's novel qualities include the subject's enigmatic expression, the monumentality of the composition, the subtle modelling of forms, and the atmospheric illusionism. 1

Self portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, c1505 (3)

The painting is probably of the Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. It is painted in oil on a white Lombardy poplar panel. Leonardo never gave the painting to the Giocondo family, and later it is believed he left it in his will to his favored apprentice Salaì. It had been believed to have been painted between 1503 and 1506; however, Leonardo may have continued working on it as late as 1517. It was acquired by King Francis I of France and is now the property of the French Republic. It has been on permanent display at the Louvre in Paris since 1797.1

The Louvre in Paris, 1800s Colonnade of the Louvre Palace, Paris, 1800s. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration. (4)

Although in the art world, the painting had always been an acknowledged masterpiece, it wasn't until it was stolen in the summer of 1911 that it would capture the attention of the general public. Newspapers spread the story of the crime worldwide. When the painting finally returned to the Louvre two years later, practically the whole world was cheering.5

Mona Lisa or also known as La Gioconda in Italian or La Joconde in French had become the darling of the public. A very small painting of an unknown woman who by the way doesn't have eyebows or eye lashes was about to become the most famous portrait of all time - and over 100 years later Mona Lisa is still on every one's list of paintings to see when you visit Paris.

Close up of Mona Lisa showing the lack of eyebrows (6)

Mona did originally have eyebrows, as was discovered in 2007 by Pascal Cotte, a French engineer and inventor, who discovered with a high-definition camera that Leonardo da Vinci originally did paint eyebrows and eyelashes.1

I'm quite sure that the man (or men) who stole Mona on the morning of 21 August 1911 did not notice the lack of these facial features!! 7

On the morning of 21 August 1911 before the Louvre opened 200 pounds of painting, frame and protective glass case was lifted off the wall and removed from the building without anyone noticing!!

And to endorse the fact that the Mona Lisa portrait was not at all considered to be the most important painting in the Louvre it was 28 hours after the theft that someone noticed the hooks on the wall of the gallery and no painting!! The discovery was made by an artist (Louis Béroud) who had set up to paint in the room where Mona once hung and assumed the portrait had been taken to be photographed as part of a project that was under way at the time.7 The guards went off to find the painting and discovered - she was gone - long gone! But her fame had just begun. 7

Newspapers all over the world began to spread the headlines that a national scandal was happening in France.

A New York Times headline from August 24, 1911, reported the investigation into the disappearance of the "Mona Lisa." (7)

Dorothy and Tom Hoobler wrote about the painting's heist in their book The Crimes of Paris and from their research we learn about the panic that took place as the gendarmes sought to find suspects:

In France, there was a great deal of concern that American millionaires were buying up the legacy of France — the best paintings," Dorothy Hoobler says. At one point, American tycoon and art lover J.P. Morgan was suspected of commissioning the theft. Pablo Picasso was also considered a suspect, and was questioned.7

And as tensions were escalating between France and Germany ahead of World War I, "there were people who thought the Kaiser was behind it," Hoobler says.7

Picasso became a suspect, largely because his friend the poet Guillaume Apollinaire had been arrested for the theft because he had said at some time that the Louvre should be burnt down!! During questioning he implicated Picasso who just happened to be in Paris at the time. Also, the fact that Picasso had actually been involved in buying stolen art from the Louvre no doubt added to the case against him.8

The real criminal was a man called Vincenzo Peruggia who two years after the theft of the Mona Lisa, was caught trying to sell the priceless painting to an art dealer in Florence, Italy. Peruggia was a handyman and a former employee of the Louvre.8

The heist involved nothing more than him hiding in a broom closet until the museum closed. Then he sidled up to the legendary portrait, pulled it off the wall, slipped it under his coat and walked out the door.8

But why did Peruggia steal the painting and did he act alone?

History paints Vincenzo Peruggia as an Italian nationalist whose most ardent wish was to see the artistic legacy of his Renaissance forefathers returned to native soil.8

According to Courtney Jordan from Artists Network the reality might be a tinge more corrupt.

Peruggia is rumored to have been in the employ of Argentine hustler Eduardo de Valfierno, who was working with forger Yves Chaudron (whose identity has never been confirmed) on a scheme to create and sell six counterfeit copies of the Mona Lisa while the real version conveniently went missing...Questions still stand around the existence of Valfierno and Chaudron, who have never been identified, and the fact that the alleged six fake paintings have never surfaced.8

So how did Peruggia get caught?

In December 1913, after two years of keeping the painting hidden in the false bottom of a trunk in his Paris flat, Peruggia was skittish and looking to offload Mona once and for all.8

He’d never heard from Valfierno after their initial agreement and decided to take matters into his own hands. He smuggled the painting to Italy. Then he attempted to sell the work to art dealer Alfredo Geri and Uffizi Gallery director Giovanni Poggi in Florence. Suspicious of the deal, one of the museum officials called the authorities.8

The Mona Lisa on display in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, 1913. Museum director Giovanni Poggi (right) inspects the painting. (8)

Peruggia was jailed for six months and according to Courtney Jordan hailed as a hero in Italy for trying to bring Mona back to the motherland!8

The Mona Lisa is one of the most valuable paintings in the world. It holds the Guinness World Record for the highest known painting insurance valuation in history at US$100 million in 1962 (equivalent to $870 million in 2021).1

Following the theft in 1911 the Mona Lisa painting has been attacked five times which you can read about by clicking here.

8. Courtney Jordan Who stole the Mona Lisa? (