The ‘Mona Lisa’: The Heist That Made The Masterpiece

Victoria Mileson

The ‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the world’s most treasured artworks. However, the ‘Mona Lisa’ wasn’t always seen as the great masterpiece that it’s known as today. In fact, it was only following a heist in 1911 that the painting achieved its high status.

On 21st August 1911, in Paris, an artist called Louis Béroud was setting up an easel in the Louvre with the intention of sketching the gallery where the ‘Mona Lisa’ resided. He noticed the painting was missing and assumed it had been taken to be photographed (the Louvre photographed their paintings on the roof in natural light).

 The pin dropped, alarms bells started ringing, and the frame was found in an empty staircase

However, in the name of his art, Béroud insisted on waiting for the ‘Mona Lisa’ and asked the guards about its return. Surprisingly, they knew nothing about it. The pin dropped, alarms bells started ringing, and the frame was found in an empty staircase. It had taken more than 24 hours for anyone to notice the empty hooks on the wall and the Louvre closed for a week. The nation was outraged but, “the art heist of the century” was pretty rudimentary.

On that Monday morning, security in the Louvre was particularly lax. It had been mocked before, but Mondays were always quieter so required less security guards. According to Ian Shanky at Artsy, a few months before the heist, a French reporter spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose their negligent security.

There were fewer than 150 security guards in charge of 250,000 artifacts, and none of the paintings were bolted to the walls. For example, the ‘Mona Lisa’ rested on just four measly hooks.

The heist of the century may have implicated Picasso and Apollinaire, but the reality was an Italian handyman called Vincenzo Peruggia.  He had snuck in the night before and hidden in a storage cupboard. Then emerging in a white smock, apparently reporting for duty as an employee, he walked up to the painting, took it off the wall and left.

The only hitch in his plan was his escape – the exit door was locked. With the painting tucked under his apron, he went to an empty staircase to free the painting from its frame and protective glass case, which a year earlier he had been hired to make and install. He was trying to take apart the doorknob when a plumber appeared, and lent a helping hand and spanner to set him free. He mistook him for a trapped co-worker, letting the thief make a quick getaway with nothing more than a thank you.

When the Louvre reopened without the ‘Mona Lisa’, thousands gathered to gawk at its empty spot, with some even placing bouquets of flowers beneath its previous home.

The painting’s disappearance was front page news across the world. Parisian magazine L’Illustration wondered “what audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?” People from all over the world had their own theories on the disappearance. There were supposed sightings in Brazil, Russia and Japan but two years passed with no evidence uncovered, despite an army of 60 detectives and their “amateur Sherlock Holmeses” all over the world.

Before the theft, the ‘Mona Lisa’ was not widely known outside the art world. Da Vinci painted it in 1507, but it wasn’t until the 1860s that critics began to hail it as a masterpiece.

So, how was it recovered?

As a former employee of the Louvre, Peruggia was questioned but was never considered a serious threat.

A prime suspect was Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet, who had once called for the Louvre to be burned down. He was linked to the theft of two statues and implicated close friend, Pablo Picasso, in his interrogation who had bought the statues to use as models for his paintings. Eventually, the two future art legends were cleared as suspects due to a lack of evidence.

People assumed it was an amateur thief as it was too brazen of a heist to try and sell the painting. However, two years after the theft, Peruggia tried to sell the painting under the alias “Leonard”. He sent a letter to an art dealer and informed him he stole the painting with the intention of repatriating it to its homeland, Italy.

The art dealer cleverly pretended to want to get the painting authenticated but instead reported it to the authorities. The police then arrested Peruggia.

Despite the international ‘sightings’, the painting never actually left France. It was found in Peruggia’s one-bedroom apartment in the outskirts of Paris, in a wooden trunk with a false bottom.

After a brief tour through Italy, the ‘Mona Lisa’ was returned to the Louvre in 1914. Peruggia spent little over a year in prison before the war broke out and he was sent to serve in the army.

Upon its return to the Louvre, over 120,000 people went to see it in the first two days. Art lovers and critics launched into fresh debates surrounding her mysterious smile. She was immortalised in everything, from Andy Warhol’s pop art to Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. Plastering her face across international newspapers in a two-year hunt shaped the ‘Mona Lisa’ into the household name she is today, which now receives over 8 million visitors a year.

According to Noah Charney, professor of art history and author of The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, said “if a different one of Leonardo’s works had been stolen, then that would have been the most famous work in the world — not the Mona Lisa.”

 The small unassuming portrait was catapulted to stardom amid a daring heist

Her enigmatic smile and the mystery surrounding her identity, as well as the fact she was painted by da Vinci all helped, but the heist was key to her popularity. The heist was a national scandal that came with international speculation. The small, unassuming portrait was catapulted to stardom amid a daring heist.

Victoria Mileson

Photo by Zach Dyson via Unsplash. License can be found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @masterofrenaissance via 

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