Stolen: How the Mona Lisa Became the World’s Most Famous Painting

One hundred years ago, a heist by a worker at the Louvre secured Leonardo’s painting as an art world icon

After 28 months, Vincenzo Perugia was arrested for the theft of the Mona Lisa. Shown here is the transfer of the painting from the Italian Ministry of Public Instruction to France. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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Unfortunately for Perugia, the Mona Lisa got too hot to hock. Initially, the afternoon newspapers in Paris had nothing on Monday, and the following morning’s papers were also curiously quiet on the matter. Would the Louvre cover it up, pretend it had not happened?

Finally, late on Tuesday, there was a media explosion when the Louvre issued a statement announcing the theft. Newspapers around the world came out with banner headlines. Wanted posters for the painting appeared on Parisian walls. Crowds massed at police headquarters. Thousands of spectators, including Franz Kafka, flooded into the Salon Carré when the Louvre reopened after a week to stare at the empty wall with its four lonely iron hooks. Kafka and his traveling companion Max Brod marveled at the “mark of shame” at the Louvre and attended a vaudeville show lampooning the theft.

Satirical postcards, a short film and cabaret songs followed—popular culture seized upon the theft and turned high art into mass art. Perugia realized that he had not pinched an old Italian painting from a decaying royal palace. He had unluckily stolen what had become, in a few short days, the world's most famous painting.

Perugia squirreled the Mona Lisa away in the false bottom of a wooden trunk in his room at his boardinghouse. When the Parisian police interrogated him in November 1911 as a part of their interviews of all Louvre employees, he blithely said he only learned of the theft from the newspapers and that the reason he was late to work that Monday in August—as his employer had told the police—was that he had drunk too much the night before and overslept.

The police bought the story. Supremely inept, they ignored Perugia and instead arrested the artist Pablo Picasso and the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire. (They were friends with a thief who admitted to pinching little sculptures from the Louvre.) The two were promptly released.

In December 1913, after 28 months, Perugia left his Parisian boardinghouse with his trunk and took a train to Florence where he tried to offload the painting on an art dealer who promptly called the police. Perugia was arrested. After a brief trial in Florence, he pleaded guilty and served only eight months in prison.

Thanks to the high-profile heist, the Mona Lisa was now a global icon. Under a shower of even more publicity, it returned to the Louvre following mobbed exhibitions in Florence, Milan and Rome. In the first two days after it was rehung in the Salon Carré, more than 100,000 people viewed it. Today, eight million people see the Mona Lisa every year.

As soon as the painting was stolen in 1911, conspiracy theories sprouted up. Was it a hoax? Some said the theft was the French government’s way of trying to distract public opinion from uprisings in colonial West Africa. A few months before the painting was found, the New York Times speculated that Louvre restorers had botched a restoration job of the Mona Lisa; to cover this up, the museum concocted the story of an outlandish theft.

Even after the recovery of the Mona Lisa, the world was still incredulous. How could a few Italian carpenters have pulled this caper off by themselves? For years, rumors surfaced that a gang of international art thieves had poached the painting and substituted a fake that was in Perugia's possession when he was caught in Florence. In a 1932 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, Karl Decker, an American journalist, offered a twist: a shady Argentine swindler had arranged for six copies of the Mona Lisa to be made and sold after Perugia’s theft (each buyer thought he had the original).

Two English-language nonfiction accounts of the theft, a 1981 book by Seymour Reit and a 2009 retelling by R.A. Scotti, carry Decker’s story to the hilt, even though there is no supporting historical evidence.


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