The Theft of the Mona Lisa
The value of the Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, is purely theoretical. In the first place it’s not for sale and never will be. It’s housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris and helps to attract almost ten million people a year, all of them paying €15 (about $17).
In 1962, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was value at $100 million for insurance purposes. Today, various numbers of $1 billion or more are tossed around, but the only value that makes sense is “priceless.”
The Night the Painting Was Stolen
Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian immigrant to France who had worked at the Louvre for a while. He had been hired to help make glass cases to protect some paintings, one of them the Mona Lisa. On August 20, 1911, he entered the museum wearing a white smock, which was the dress of all the employees.
He hid in a closet until the museum closed. When Paris was asleep, he removed the Mona Lisa from its display place. (There was little security surrounding the portrait in those days). He went back to his hiding place until the Louvre opened and then calmly walked out with the Mona Lisa under his smock.
There is a bit of a flaw in this scenario. The painting and its mountings weighed about 90 kg (200 lbs). That would have been a huge challenge for one man to carry to a place where he could remove the security material and just be left with the eight-kilo (18-pound) painting. Did Peruggia have accomplices? Some believe he did but they were never found.
It was common for paintings to be removed from their perches to be photographed so it was 24 hours before anybody noticed that La Gioconda was missing.
The theft was a sensation that had the police perplexed. Who could have pulled off such a sophisticated crime and why?
At first, suspicion fell on modernist artists who were thought to be taking a swipe at traditionalist painters. Guillaume Apollinaire, a playwright and poet, had once said the painting ought to be burned. He was arrested and released when it was found he had nothing to do with the crime.
Then, the police cast a suspicious eye on Pablo Picasso but, of course, he was clean. The American banker J. Pierpont Morgan was rumoured to be behind the heist. He was known as a grasping art collector with few scruples.
Police even interviewed Peruggia but decided he wasn’t smart enough to pull off so brazen a crime. At one point there were 60 detectives on the case but they ran into nothing but dead ends.
The theft became a media sensation with images of the portrait appearing in newspapers all around the world elevating La Gioconda to international stardom. Queues, which had never appeared when the Mona Lisa was in residence, now sprang up with people wanting to see the empty spot where she had hung.
Noah Charney is an art historian and author. He told CNN the theft is what gave the painting its mega star status. “There was nothing that really distinguished it per se, other than it was a very good work by a very famous artist” he said “that’s until it was stolen.”
Paris’s leading magazine, L’Illustration, lamented “What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?” It offered a substantial reward for its safe return.
The Mona Lisa Reappears
More than two years went by before a man calling himself Leonard contacted an art dealer in Florence. He told Alfredo Geri he had the Mona Lisa and wished to sell it.
Signore Vincenzo travelled to Florence with the portrait hidden in the false bottom of a trunk.
At the Hotel Tripoli-Italia Leonard showed La Gioconda to Geri and to Giovanni Poggi, director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. It took the two men little time establish the authenticity of the painting but said they needed to take it to the Uffizi for further tests.
Later that day, the police arrested Leonard at his hotel and, of course, he turned out to be Vincenzo Peruggia. The hotel owners made the most of its subsequent notoriety by renaming their property the Hotel La Gioconda.
Vincenzo Peruggia’s Motive
Speculation runs rife about why a humble handyman would steal the artwork of Leonardo da Vinci.
The most widely held theory, and the one confirmed by Peruggia, was that the theft was an act in defence of national honour. Peruggia seemed to have had a shaky grasp of history seeming to think that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Italy by Napoleon.
The painting had, in fact, been acquired quite legitimately by King Francoise I from a dealer after da Vinci’s death in 1519. That was 250 years before Napoleon was born, although the little general did, at one time, have the Mona Lisa hanging in his boudoir.
Peruggia was astonished that he was not received as a hero for returning a national treasure to its rightful home. At trial, he spun his misguided patriotism defence and the court seem to buy it as he was given a lenient seven-month prison sentence.
But, he had already been in pre-trial custody longer than that so he walked free. But that’s not where the story ends - perhaps.
This is where we meet Karl Decker an American newspaperman stationed in that hotbed of intrigue and skulduggery, Casablanca.
He was having a drink in a bar when he bumped into an acquaintance known as Eduardo (it would be nice to report the location as Rick’s Café, but that was fiction). Going by the alias of Marqués de Valfierno among others, Eduardo was a consummate con man. He unloaded a wonderful story that Decker was sworn to keep secret until after he, Eduardo, was dead.
Karl Decker kept his word on the juiciest story he’d ever come across until 1932. Valfierno had passed on to whatever comes after the last breath and Decker published his yarn in The Saturday Evening Post.
The Valfierno story is that Peruggia was just a patsy who did the grunt work along with two other men.
In 1910, the con man hired a forger to produce copies of the Mona Lisa. When the portrait disappeared from the Louvre, Valfierno started selling his copies to rich Americans as the original. Decker said Valfierno told him he knew of at least 30 “original” Mona Lisas in existence, he was simply adding half a dozen more.
The buyers could not reveal they had acquired stolen goods and they believed Valfierno’s story that galleries and museums were losing originals all the time and replacing them with fakes. They could not admit such money spinners as the Mona Lisa were copies so they concocted plausible stories about their recovery.
There are those who say the Decker story, just like Rick’s Café, is fictional. We only have Decker’s word for its truth and he’s long gone. But, it does make for a darned good yarn.
There may still be families in the United States who quietly believe they own the original Mona Lisa. Perhaps, one family is right.
According to The Telegraph, “When it comes to seeing the Mona Lisa, you simply can’t.” The portrait is quite small, only 77 cm x 53 cm (about 30 inches x 21 inches) and is encased in a bullet-proof screen. A barrier keeps the throng of visitors several feet away, and viewers need to put their elbows up to get to the front.
The high level of security today is necessary because, apart from the 1911 theft, there have been attempts to damage the painting. In 1956, a Bolivian tourist chucked a rock at the Mona Lisa causing a small amount of damage to the subject’s left elbow. A few months earlier another attacked threw acid at the painting.
Various theories have been advanced about why the Mona Lisa doesn’t have eyebrows or eyelashes. One suggestion is that da Vinci never actually finished the painting, while another is that removal of eyebrows was fashionable at the time. In 2007, Parisian engineer Pascal Cotte used an ultra-detailed digital scan to examine the portrait. He says da Vinci did paint eyebrows but they have been gradually eroded by restorers.
The Mona Lisa has her own mailbox at the Louvre to receive the many love letters she receives from smitten males. And, Time Magazine reports that in 1910 “A heartbroken suitor once shot himself to death in front of her.”
King Francis I of France had the Mona Lisa hung in his bathroom.
- “Paris: How to Visit the Louvre.” The Telegraph, September 8, 2015.
- “The Mona Lisa Is Stolen from the Louvre.” Richard Cavendish, History Today, August 8, 2011.
- “Mona Lisa: The Theft that Created a Legend.” Sheena McKenzie, CNN, November 19, 2013.
- “Stealing Mona Lisa.” Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, Vanity Fair, May 2009.
- “Art’s Great Whodunit: The Mona Lisa Theft of 1911.” Richard Lacayo, Time, April 27, 2009.