Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa

Perhaps the most famous smile in history, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has a long history of mystery. Who is she? What thoughts lie behind her enigmatic smile? So many questions surround the painting that we’re not only taken by her beauty but her mystique.

In her humble beginnings, the portrait changed hands a couple times. First when, in 1516, Leonardo sold it to King Francis I, but as the French Revolution began, the painting was moved to the Louvre for safe keeping. Then, again, it changed locations when Napoleon took the Mona Lisa to hang in his bedroom, but eventually returned it to the Louvre.

The Mona Lisa wasn’t one of de Vinci’s most famous pieces, and in fact, it has spent most of its life in almost obscurity hanging in the Louvre. That is until August 21st, 1911 when the Mona Lisa was stolen.

The Louvre

An Italian petty thief named Vincenzo Peruggia had been working at the Paris museum for about three years. It’s unknown how long he planned the theft, but what is known is that one night he and two accomplices hid in an art-supply closet. Towards dawn, the men, dressed in typical working smocks, snuck out of the closet, lifted the Mona Lisa from its four hooks and removed it from its frame. Vincenzo Peruggia simply hid the painting under his smock.

At this time, there was no security system in place and there were only a few guards on duty. The only snafu Peruggia came upon was one locked door. To get around this, he first tried to remove the doorknob. When that failed, an unsuspecting plumber passed by, and the thief nonchalantly asked him to use his keys to open the door. Vincenzo Peruggia simply walked out the entrance of the Louvre and took the Mona Lisa to his humble apartment.

Strangely enough, no one noticed the painting was missing for about twenty-
Events of the theft
eight hours. And only then because a fussy, still-life artist, who had set up to paint the gallery felt he couldn’t start his work without the Mona Lisa in place.
In those days it was common to take works of art to the rooftop to photograph them in the sun, since cameras of the day didn’t work well inside. So, no one was worried about a blank space on the wall.

Finally, the fussy artist persuaded a guard to check with the photographers and ask when the painting would be returned to its place on the wall. Lo-and-behold, the photographers didn’t have the Mona Lisa and a sudden media storm was launched.

The theft of the Mona Lisa was plastered on the front page of every newspaper around the world. It was a frenzy of whodunit, and not until the sinking of the Titanic, April 1912, did something begin to have as much power over the media.

Two years after the theft, Vincenzo Peruggia (using the name Leonardo
Mug shot of V. Peruggia
Peruggia) contacted an art dealer in Italy to try and sell the piece. He arranged to meet the dealer then traveled from France to Italy with the Mona Lisa hidden in a secret compartment in his traveling trunk. After arriving, the dealer felt something was off with the painting and persuaded Peruggia to leave the work so it could be looked at by an expert.

The stamp on the back established it was the stolen Mona Lisa.

The dealer then told Peruggia that it was the authentic Mona Lisa and they would return the piece to the authorities. The dealer convinced Peruggia he would receive a reward, so the thief went back home. A half an hour later he was met by the police at his door and was promptly arrested.

He used the excuse that he was trying to return the painting to Italy and he should be rewarded for returning what was stolen by Napoleon. Remember the painting was not stolen by Napoleon, but in fact Napoleon took it from the Louvre. 

Peruggia, after pleading guilty, spent just eight months in prison probably due to his convincing argument that he wanted to bring the painting home to Italy.

The painting was returned to the Louvre with all the pomp and circumstance of  returning royalty.

Now the Mona Lisa is the crown jewel in the Louvre's tiara, and many experts say this is due to the giant media frenzy of the the theft of 1911. As my grandmother used to say . . . Now you know.

Thank you for stopping by HHH today and be blessed. 

Until we meet again,


Multi award-winning author, Michele K. Morris’s love for historical fiction began

when she first read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series. She grew up riding horses and spending her free time in the woods of mid-Michigan. Married to her high school sweetheart, they are living happily-ever-after with their six children, three in-loves, and ten grandchildren in Florida, the sunshine state. Michele loves to hear from readers on Facebook, Twitter, and here through the group blog, Heroes, Heroines, and History at HHHistory.com.

Michele is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency.