Stealing the Mona Lisa: The World’s Greatest Art Heist

Jun 11, 2012 - by Marilyn Z. Tomlins

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa was the world’s most famous and valuable painting, yet its security depended on four ordinary hooks and the locked door of the museum – the Louvre in Paris – where it was on display. All that would be needed to take it down from the wall and to carry it off was a pair of strong arms.

by Marilyn Z. Tomlins

The streets of Paris were already hot but still silent on this summer morning just before eight. It was Monday, August 21. The year was 1911.

A few drunk revelers – men, their handlebar mustaches wet with perspiration, and women of low repute, necklaces of fake rubies and emeralds adorning their half-exposed ample bosoms – stood on the sidewalks outside the Folies Bergère music hall and the Moulin Rouge cabaret waiting for taxicabs – horse-drawn carriages – to come by and to take them home.

Elsewhere in Paris, burly concierges were sweeping the sidewalks in front of the buildings in their charge. Halting for a few minutes, they lit foul-smelling Gaullois cigarettes and shouted greetings across the streets to one another. 

Mondays were closing days for small family-owned shops, those which were open on Sundays, but the big stores of La Samaritaine, Galaries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché would be opening and pretty salesgirls were already at that hour emerging from Métro (the underground rail system) stations for a 10-hour working day.

The Louvre museum was also closed. Always open on a Sunday, Monday was the day the museum was being cleaned. Cleaners would polish its wooden floors, delicately dust the paintings hanging on the walls and wipe off the oily finger marks which had been left by admiring visitors on the glass display cases. It was also a day for repairs when the maintenance staff, dressed in white smocks so that they could be told apart from the lowly cleaners, who wore blue aprons, would change light bulbs, repair leaking faucets, or replace hooks on a painting. There would also be banging both inside and outside the building because an elevator, a new element in the capital’s Haussmannian buildings, was being installed and scaffolding covered part of the building.

Monday was also the day the Louvre’s official photographers, also dressed in white smocks, took paintings down from the walls to carry them to a studio elsewhere on the premises in order to photograph them for the museum’s archives.

It was, in fact, a busy day in the Louvre, once a residence of France’s monarchs but for the previous 117 years a museum visited each day by several hundred people, not all of them Parisians or even French, but foreign art lovers who had come to Paris on slow trains or slow ships. Air travel was still something of the future.

The Louvre Museum in Paris
The Louvre Museum in Paris

The museum employed over 200 people. At the top was Jean Théophile Homolle. He was addressed as Monsieur le Directeur – Mister Director – and was the overall head of all of France’s state-owned museums. An archaeologist regarded as one of France’s foremost, he was, on this Monday, on a working vacation observing the Mayan Civilization excavation work in the Yucatán Peninsula. In his absence the Louvre was in the hands of his deputy, Georges Aaron Bénédite, curator of Egyptian Antiquities.  Homolle was 63 and Bénédite was 10 years his junior, and both men always dressed as Parisian gentlemen did:  in dark morning coats, upright white collars, bow ties and striped pants.

At the bottom were the museum’s cleaners and maintenance men and ranked just a notch above them were the guards.

Most of the cleaners, as also the maintenance men, were from the poor and illiterate Italian immigrant community. They were known in the country by the derogatory term of macaroni; they were eaters of macaroni.

A Louvre guard was on the contrary French as the job was reserved for retired servicemen in order to augment the stipend they received in pension from the state. A guard wore a uniform made of dark, heavy, inexpensive gabardine, and a képi (cap) and he had to report for duty at 7 a.m. to be on watch at 11:30 a.m. when visitors were allowed in, and he had to remain on duty until 4 p.m. when the visitors had to be out because the doors were to be closed and locked.

He also had to take his turn to be on duty at night and on a Monday because an eye had to be kept on the cleaners, the maintenance men and the photographers just as on visitors. He was indispensable because the safety of the museum’s treasures depended solely on him; it was a time when such a thing as a security alarm did not yet exist. It was therefore for him to patrol the museum’s 49 acres, to make sure that glass display cases were still locked and that the masterpieces of artists like Titian, Rembrandt, Correggio, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci were still hanging in place.

A normal day in the Louvre Museum
A normal day in the Louvre Museum

If the space where a painting used to hang was bare, it was for the guard to find out why. Usually this was not a problem and his first stop would be to check in on the photographers’ studio to see whether the painting was being photographed.  Recording the museum’s artwork through photographs was an idea of Director Homolle; he was so accommodating to the photographers that they did not need to ask permission to remove a painting or tell anyone that they were going to remove a painting. 

Therefore, on this Monday morning when Head of Maintenance, a man history knows only as Picquet, ambled through the museum and saw that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was not hanging in its usual spot between Corregio’s Mystical Marriage and Titian’s Allegory of Alfonso d’Avalos in the Salon Carré on the 1st floor, it did not alarm him.

It was being photographed, he decided.

No doubt the photographer would finish with the painting and hang it back for the following day’s opening at 11:30. a.m.

As he knew, the hanging process itself would not be a problem because the museum’s paintings hung on ordinary hooks of the kind sold in any of Paris’s hardware shops. Carrying the painting back to the Salon Carré might however be a problem because though it was small – 31 x 21 inches – it was quite heavy. Not the painting as such because it only weighed 18 pounds but Director Homolle had, for its protection from the elements, placed it in a glass box which weighed 150 pounds. The frame too was rather heavy at 30 pounds. That meant that the painting weighed in total 198 pounds.

However, the photographer would probably get one of his colleagues to help him carry it and hang it back up.

In no way concerned, Picquet hung around until 4 p.m. and, the painting still not hanging, he went home.

 

But where was the Mona Lisa?

An empty space where the Mona Lisa used to hang
An empty space where the Mona Lisa used to hang

On Tuesday, Paris’s 2.7 million inhabitants yet again woke to a cloudless sky.

At 10 o’clock, the temperature hitting 90, macaroni ragamuffins clenched their thirst at the city’s cast-iron drinking fountains – the Wallace fountains – while the elegant female passengers of automobiles that looked like boxes on mountain bike wheels tossed them copper coins.

At the Louvre, its door not yet open to allow visitors in, French artist Louis Béroud walked into the Salon Carré for a day of work. Director Homolle also allowed artists to set up their easels in the museum in order to paint copies of the masterpieces on the condition that the copy was never the same size as the original.

Béroud, a white-haired man of 59, did not however paint copies of masterpieces. He had invented a kind of “photographic painting”; he placed people – an elegant man or woman, or a cleaning lady, or even a dog or bird  – beside a famous painting or object on display in the museum and then painted the scene, thus reproducing a masterpiece but not copying it as such.

This Tuesday, wearing a white smock like those of the maintenance men, he wanted to work on his current creation. It was of a young girl watching the reflection of her face in the Mona Lisa’s glass case. To his annoyance he saw that the painting which he and his compatriots knew as La Joconde and which the museum’s Macaronis knew as La Gioconda has been removed.

The guard who would be on duty in the Salon Carré was Maximilien Alphonse Paupardin. He was already seated on one of the hard wooden stools Director Homolle allowed the retired servicemen to rest their old and aching limbs on while guarding the treasures. Already having seen that the Mona Lisa was not on the wall and presuming that the photographers had it, he told Béroud that he would find out when it would be returned.

Béroud took off his white smock and said he was going to go out for a coffee. There were many bistros on the bordering Rue de Rivoli where he could go.

Paupardin, the heat stifling in the centuries-old building of which all the windows were permanently closed, lazily ambled to the photographers’ studio. A few minutes later, willing speed into his old legs, he ran to Acting Director Bénédite’s office: The photographers did not have the Mona Lisa.

Quickly, Bénédite issued an order that the guards must go round the museum to see if one of the staff had not removed the painting to show privately to an important visitor.

At noon, every room having been checked, Bénédite knew that the Mona Lisa, its value estimated at approximately FF26 million ($5 million at the FF5.20/$1 exchange rate of the time), was not on the premises.

The thought was too horrifying to contemplate, but the Mona Lisa was missing, and horror of all horrors, it might have been stolen.

At 1 p.m. Bénédite, considering the matter too serious for a telephone call – he would have had to shout anyway as connections were always bad – put on his top hat and walked briskly in the blistering sunshine the short distance from the museum to the Préfecture de Police – police headquarters – on the Ile de la Cité, one of the two islands on the River Seine in central Paris.

He went to tell Octave Henry Adéodat Hamard, 50, the head of police – the Sûrété – that the Mona Lisa had disappeared.

Immediately, Hamard informed his superior, Louis Jean-Baptiste Lépine, 65, the politically appointed Préfet (Prefect) of Paris and overall head of the capital’s police and fire fighters, that there was a problem at the Louvre: The Mona Lisa might have been stolen.

At 2 p.m. Lépine, Hamard and the latter’s deputy, Louis-François Jouin, 50, and a team of uniformed police arrived at the museum either on foot or in those automobiles that looked like boxes on mountain bike wheels and manufactured in Paris by the De Dion-Bouton automobile company.

The first thing Lépine did was to order all visitors out – the museum had opened as usual – and all doors leading to the exterior locked.

All staff however had to remain in the building.

 

The Investigation

Jouin would be in charge of the investigation. He would report the findings of his investigators to Hamard who would in turn keep Lépine informed so that he would be able to keep Minister of Beaux Arts, Théodore Steeg, 43, informed who would in turn keep Prime Minister Joseph-Marie August Caillaux, 55, informed. The latter would without doubt have to tell France’s President Clément Armand Fallières, 70, whatever there was to know about the disappearance – or the theft.

Jouin wanted the museum to be thoroughly searched; he made it clear that every nook and cranny had to be inspected.  There were dozens of winding stone staircases and rooms in the building which visitors never entered – notices that warned “Private” or “No Entry” kept them out – but to which even the lowliest cleaner had access by using one of the hundred or so passkeys available.

He also wanted every staff member interrogated and they had to supply alibis for their movements on Sunday and Monday. Where possible, former staff members would also have to found and interrogated.

Paupardin told the cops the story of how he was on duty on Sunday and when he left the museum at the end of the day the Mona Lisa was on the wall as always. He was not on duty on Monday, but had noticed on Tuesday morning that the paintingwas not on the wall.

Another guard named Desormais, who was on duty in the Salon Carré on Monday, confessed that, as he was the only guard for several salons that day, he could not say that he had supervised the Mona Lisa all throughout the day.

Parisians gathered outside the Louvre’s main door, curious to know why the museum was closed to visitors, some, angrily demanding to be allowed in. They were told to be patient but they were not told that the museum’s greatest treasure has been stolen.

Jouin’s men made a discovery. They found a glass box and a picture frame lying at the foot of one of those staircases forbidden to visitors.

The staircase led from the Salon Carré.

It was established rapidly that the frame of poplar wood and the glass box were those of the Mona Lisa; inscribed on the back of the frame was - Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) École Florentine La Joconde (Portrait de Mona Lisa).

Both the box and frame were undamaged.

To Jouin it meant that whoever had stolen the painting was a handyman to have removed the frame so agilely, and physically strong to have carried it off.  It had already dawned on him that the thief was familiar with security at the museum – lack of security rather – to have dared lift the painting down and to have carried it to the staircase to there remove it from the frame.

Another discovery was made.

Cops fine-combing around the exterior of the Louvre found a brass doorknob. It lay in a bare macadamized strip alongside the building on Quai (Quay) du Louvre, a wrought iron railing separating the building from the road beyond which the River Seine flowed calmly to the sea.

The knob matched those of the museum’s doors and a door from which a knob was missing was found. The door was on the ground floor and opened on to Quai du Louvre.

Ah, said one of the museum’s plumbers, a man known only as Sauvet, he had unlocked that that door that morning for a man he had presumed was one of the museum’s employees. He had to unlock the door because the door was without a knob and the man had told him that he had forgotten to bring a passkey along. Also, said Sauvet, he had seen something flat wrapped in a white cloth propped up against the wall beside the door.

Sauvet’s testimony pointed out the thief’s exit route to Jouin. The thief had gone down stairs which led from the Salon Carré, then he had walked across an inner courtyard – Cour du Sphinx – where sculptures were displayed, and into the small Salle d’Afrique of African antiquities beyond which was another inner courtyard – the Cour Visconti – where more sculptures were displayed, and from there into a narrow and empty ante-chamber where a door led out to the street, but had found the door locked and not having a key he had removed the knob thinking that without a knob on the door he could force it open, but finally (and unfortunately for the museum) the plumber had just at that moment appeared and had let him out. A few paces along the sidewalk, walking towards the Tuileries gardens and Ave des Champs-Élysées, he had thrown the knob away.

Lépine, having been informed of the discovery of the glass case, frame and knob decided that there could be no doubt that the Mona Lisa was somewhere in Paris to be taken by the thief on one of the cruise liners sailing to the United States where a millionaire art collector was probably waiting for it. He consequently ordered custom controls on all of France’s land and sea borders to be tightened. Telegraphing foreign port authorities, he also obtained promises that the luggage of passengers who had sailed from France on or after Sunday, August 20, would be searched.

He also called in Alphonse Bertillon, head of the Judicial Identity branch at the Préfecture de Police. Bertillon, 58, a man with a gray goatee – goatees were the height of fashion in Paris and no man who considered himself a gentleman would have been without one – was the creator of anthropometry or bertillonage, the systematic measuring of the naked body of someone under arrest, even if that person would not be indicted, and then recording the details in the police’s files in order to identify a recidivist criminal. He was known worldwide and crime fiction writers like Conan Doyle mentioned him in their books. (Bertillonage would in due course lead to fingerprinting and the police mug shot.)

Bertillon scrutinized the staircase where the glass case and frame were found and the macadamized strip where the knob was found. He also scrutinized the glass case, frame and knob. He found a fingerprint on the frame. Satisfied, he would compare it to the quarter million fingerprints he already had in his archive.

If the thief were a recidivist, without doubt Bertillon would be able to identify him.

Meanwhile, the Paris daily Le Temps broke the news of the theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. The paper’s report caused consternation among Parisians. In bars, those of the patrons who could read, read the paper’s report out to those who were illiterate, and the elderly and the old wondered what the world was coming to and said that they were born just at the right time because their generation was the last to have been brought up with a sense of knowing right from wrong.

Le Temps’s report brought forth a young shop assistant, André Bouquet, who claimed that on that Monday morning of the theft at around 8 or 8:30 he was on his way to work when he saw a man who was carrying some large object wrapped in a blanket walk on the museum’s side along Quai du Louvre. The man had thrown something over the wrought iron railing. He did not explain why he would have noticed the man with the package; Parisians were known (and still are) for never looking at anyone they pass or who passes them on the street. He also could not describe the man; he said he was walking in the same direction as the man – west towards the Tuileries Garden – but on the other side of the road and could therefore not see the man’s face.

Before the week ended the story was being telegraphed to newspapers all over the world.

On Tuesday, August 29, the day the Louvre reopened its door to visitors, another Paris daily, Paris-Journal, which had, like several Paris papers, offered a generous reward for information that would lead to the arrest of the thief, wrote on its front page that it had received a letter from someone who told them that it was easy stealing from the Louvre and that he had done so himself. The letter was unsigned.

Next, the paper reported that one of its reporters had met with a young man – the letter writer – at a pre-arranged spot in Paris, and the young man had given him a valuable Phoenician statuette he said was one of three he had stolen from the Louvre; the other two he had sold for 50 francs to an artist friend of his.  He denied that he had stolen the Mona Lisa; the painting’s theft had even angered him because he said that, as he sold what he stole, it was a livelihood which would now have ended because the Louvre would be tightening its security.

The paper, having first put the statuette in its display window for the Parisians to see and admire, handed it back to the Louvre who had already said that the three stolen statuettes were Iberian and much less valuable than had it been Phoenician. The paper also published another letter from the young man in which he said that he was a Belgian and has returned to Belgium which the letter’s postmark confirmed. The letter was signed Baron Ignace d’Ormeson. It was a name the cops could not say they had heard before, but Paris’s literati had indeed: Baron Ignace d’Ormeson was a character in a series of short stories titled L’Hérésiarque et cie written by Guillaume Apollinaire, 31, the flamboyant Paris-based Polish-born journalist, art critic, poet and short story writer, and part of the Stein set: Gertrude, Leo, Michael, Sarah and Gertrude’s lover Alice B. Toklas, and the artists Braque and Matisse and a young artist from Spain named Pablo Picasso.

On Wednesday, September 5, another young man turned up at Paris-Journal’s offices and handed over the other two statuettes. The paper knew the young man’s identity, but would only tell the Louvre that he was “an honorable individual who had purchased the two heads for a small sum and who had grown concerned after the rumors in the press about the thefts of the Iberian statuettes and that he might have bought stolen objects without realizing it.”

The cops however got this second young man’s name from the paper and set off for his Paris apartment.

He was none other than Guillaume Apollinaire.

 

Arrest

On Thursday, September 7, early in the afternoon, two men arrived at Apollinaire’s apartment in the Paris suburb of Auteuil.

Apollinaire opened to the two’s knock and after an hour the two left the apartment and waited outside the building until the poet joined them and the three hailed a taxicab carriage which took them to police headquarters: The two men were plainclothes cops.

At police headquarters Jouin was waiting and after a brief discussion with Apollinaire, he took him to the office of Magistrate Henri Drioux. The latter, in France known as a juge d’instruction, was to decide whether the evidence gathered by Jouin’s investigators warranted the arrest and indictment of a suspect. A magistrate’s decision did not rest solely on what the cops uncovered, but also on his own judgment as he too interrogated suspects.

Drioux was to interrogate Apollinaire, but first he informed him that he was suspected of having harbored a thief and of having received stolen property: statuettes from the Louvre. At that stage the Mona Lisa was not mentioned.

The interrogation continued through the night.

 At first, Apollinaire vehemently denied the two accusations, but eventually owed up to having employed the thief of the statuettes in the past as a secretary, but that he had not known that the man was a thief and when he found out, he dismissed him and handed the stolen objects (two statuettes) the thief had left in his apartment to Paris-Journal. He told Drioux the man’s name – Piéret.

Before the night was over, he also gave Drioux another name. It was that of an artist friend of his who had paid Piéret 50 francs for those two statuettes which had been handed over to the newspaper. His friend also had not known that the statuettes had been stolen from the Louvre.

The friend was the artist Pablo Picasso, 30 years old, who hailed from Spain and had just begun to make a name for himself in Paris due to his friendship with the Steins.

What Apollinaire did not tell Drioux was that a few nights previously, he and Picasso, both in a state of great anxiety since the theft of the Mona Lisa, had walked the dark streets of nighttime Paris – only a few of the capital’s street were lit by electricity, the others were still lit by gas – working up courage to throw the two statuettes into the River Seine. They feared that Piéret with his big mouth would lead the police to them, and that the cops, who they did not consider competent, were going to accuse them of not only having stolen the statuettes but also the Mona Lisa.

Believing the statuettes of great beauty and value, the two had failed the courage to throw them into the river, and had taken them back to Picasso’s apartment from where Apollinaire had taken them to the newspaper without having told Picasso.

Two days later, at 7 a.m. a plainclothes cop arrived at Picasso’s apartment on the hill of Montmartre. The cop had gone to the apartment by bus, a large clumsy vehicle with a noisy combustion engine, and he was to take Picasso to police headquarters to be interrogated by Drioux, also by bus.

As Picasso’s many lovers would write in autobiographies later, he was in no way a brave man. Accordingly, the not yet dressed Picasso, shaking badly, needed the assistance of his current lover, Fernande Olivier, to help him dress.

In Drioux’ office Picasso denied knowing Apollinaire. The latter, disheveled and shaken after 48 hours in La Santé prison, not one of Paris’s most comfortable, sat only a few feet from him in the room and began to cry at what he heard his friend say. Picasso too broke down in tears.  Pulling himself together, he denied having known that the Iberian statuettes had been stolen from the Louvre; he had, he said, no knowledge of any stolen statuettes or of the missing Mona Lisa.

Drioux, allowing Picasso the benefit of the doubt, let him go, but told him not to leave Paris as he might be needed for further interrogation.

Apollinaire was returned to La Santé. From there, on Wednesday, September 13, he was driven to court for a preliminary hearing. All of Paris’s newspapers, intellectuals and artists had meanwhile spoken up in his favor; they accused the police, calling them incompetent, of wanting to crack the Mona Lisa theft rapidly in order to look good.

Apollinaire was freed, but remaining accused of the two charges, headed straight for the offices of Paris-Journal and wrote a moving article about the horrors of prison life.  Next, he went to Picasso’s apartment and the two friends confessed to each other of having been terribly frightened and of having said things to Drioux which they should not have. What had been a warm friendship was though to become a cool social relationship.

What the papers had called the l’affaire des statuettes – the statuettes affair – was over.

The Mona Lisa remained missing, and Director Homolle, back in Paris from the Yucatán Peninsula, was forced to resign. A temporary director was appointed. He was Eugène Pujalet, 43, and he was not an art scholar but a high-ranking official at the Sûretè because what the Louvre needed was a cop who would be able to revise the museum’s security so that no one would ever be able to walk out with a priceless artwork under the arm.

The newspapers kept writing about the theft of the Mona Lisa, its place in the Salon Carré filled with Raphael’s Baldassarre Castiglione,  but the theft became yesterday’s news on April 15, 1912 when the unsinkable Titanic sunk on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, not one of the fingerprints in Bertillon’s file matched the one found on Mona Lisa’s frame.

 

A man named Leonardo

In November 1913, the Mona Lisa missing for more than two years, Alfredo Geri, a prosperous art dealer in Florence, Italy, received a letter with a Paris postmark.  The letter had been posted on Saturday, November 29.

The letter, in Italian, was signed “Leonardo.”

“Leonardo” wrote to the portly bon-vivant Geri, 45, who had placed a notice in the Rome newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Stampa that he would pay a substantial reward to anyone who brought him the missing Mona Lisa, that he had the painting. He had stolen it, he wrote, because he was Italian and a patriot and he wanted to return the painting to its rightful home – Italy – from where France’s Napoléon (1769-1821) had stolen it.

(Napoléon had not stolen the Mona Lisa: On Leonardo da Vinci’s death in France in 1519 where he had gone to live on the invitation of King François I, the monarch had bought the painting from one of the painter’s young male protégées, Giovanni Giacomo di Pietro Caprotti, better known by the nickname Salai – Little Devil – Da Vinci had given him. After the French Revolution the painting was hung in the newly created Louvre museum from where Napoléon removed it when he became Emperor and hung it in his bedroom but only for a while until he returned it to the Louvre.)

Geri showed the letter to his friend Giovanni Poggi, 33, director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and on the latter’s suggestion he wrote to “Leonardo” and asked if he could bring the painting to Florence. To the surprise of Geri and Poggi a telegraph arrived from “Leonardo.” He was, he announced, in nearby Milan and was on his way to Florence.

On Wednesday, December 10, early afternoon “Leonardo” arrived at Geri’s art gallery. Poggi was on a business trip to Bologna but was going to return to Florence that evening.

Geri would later be quoted in books about the Mona Lisa theft as describing “Leonardo” as young, thin, elegantly but inexpensively dressed and sporting a black mustache.  As Geri also recounted, “Leonardo” told him how he had pulled off the theft.  In 1911 in Paris Jouin had made everyone believe that the thief had spent the Sunday night hidden in the Louvre, in a cupboard probably, and, that on the next morning, he had pounced. No, said “Leonardo,” he had not spent the night hidden in the museum: He had walked into the museum on that Monday morning of the theft at 7 a.m. just as he had done in the past when he had worked in the museum as a contracted maintenance man.

“Leonardo” asked Geri for 500,000 lire (then approximately $100,000 and today $650,000) for the painting. He was not selling the painting, he said, but he thought that the Italian people owed him that sum for returning the Mona Lisa to them; he was not a thief, he emphasized.

Geri made an appointment for “Leonardo” to return the next day at 3 p.m. with the painting. Geri wanted Poggi, an expert on Leonardo da Vinci’s work, to see the painting. Geri did not however plan to hand money over to “Leonardo”; when he had Poggi’s assurance that the painting they were to be shown was indeed the Mona Lisa, he was going to summons the cops.

“Leonardo” arrived an hour late. He did not have the painting with him; he had left it in his hotel room and he wanted Geri and Poggi to accompany him to the hotel.

The modest Hotel Tripoli-Italia was not far from the gallery but Geri and Poggi, eager to see the painting, hailed a taxicab carriage. The two were also nervous as they feared that they might be considered as accomplices to a theft and wanted to get the matter over with. “Leonardo,” still dressed as he’d been on his previous two visits, was on the contrary relaxed, almost jubilant.

The three men entered a small corner room on the hotel’s third (top) floor. “Leonardo” pulled a small trunk from underneath the single bed. He opened the trunk. It was filled with crinkled clothes, a mangled straw hat, a pair of shoes badly in need of polishing, a handyman’s tools, and something wrapped in a cloth of red silk. A few seconds later, Geri and Poggi stared at a painting of a young woman; she was smiling gently at them, her ringless hands crossed over her stomach.

Geri would recall: “To our astonished eyes, the divine Gioconda appeared, intact and marvelously preserved.”

He and Poggi lifted up the painting and standing in front of the window for extra light they examined it.

“There was no doubt. It was La Gioconda. The Louvre’s catalogue number and stamp was on the back,” recalled Geri.

However, it was not a time for being wrong and Poggi told Geri, without “Leonardo” hearing their conversation, that he wanted to study the painting further at the Uffizi. “Leonardo,” having been assured that he would be rewarded financially for having returned the painting to its rightful owners, did not object to accompanying them to the museum, and taking the painting along.

At the museum, Poggi needed only a few minutes to verify that the painting was indeed the Mona Lisa. He thanked “Leonardo” for his patriotism and told him that he could return to his hotel and wait there for his reward; the painting would remain at the Uffizi.

“Leonardo” walked back to the hotel.

Poggi, not wanting to look silly should the painting not be the real thing but a well-executed copy, telephoned Italy’s Minister of Art, Corradi Ricci, in Rome. The latter, an art scholar, arrived on the first train and comparing the length and width of cracks – craquelure – on the painting with those recorded as on the Louvre’s Mona Lisa, he confirmed that there was no doubt. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece has been found.

Before night fell on that day of Friday, December 12, Francesco Tarantelli, Florence’s police chief, knocked at the door of the room where Signor “Vincenzo Leonardo” lay asleep.

The Minister of Art meanwhile telephoned Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel and told him that La Joconde’s thief has been arrested and that the painting has not been damaged. Next, he phoned the Vatican and told Pope Pius X. Then he phoned Camille Barrière, France’s ambassador to Italy.

Immediately, Ambassador Barrière phoned Director Pujalet and he called Magistrate Drioux. Pujalet was however skeptical: Nonsense, he said to Drioux, it was not possible for someone just to walk out of the Louvre, a painting under his arm, and doing so in broad daylight. Drioux agreed.

The news was nonetheless telegraphed across the world.

 

Such an ordinary man

Vincenzo Peruggia
Vincenzo Peruggia

Signor “Vincenzo Leonardo” talked easily.

Immediately, he gave Tarantelli his real name: Vincenzo Peruggia.

He was born 32 years previously in the town of Dumenza in the northern Italian province of Lombardy close to Switzerland.  He dreamed of becoming a painter and like so many before him, he set off for Paris, the City of Light – and culture and art.  It was 1905; he was 24 years old.

Life in the beautiful Parigi was expensive and while waiting for the dawning of the day he would be a famous painter, he went to work for a property maintenance concern named Gobier for a daily wage of F8.50 (little over a dollar). In November 1909 Gobier was contracted to the Louvre to install glass cases around some of the museum’s paintings. The duration of the contract was for two months, but a year later, in November 1910 the company was again contracted to the museum. He had worked at the museum on the first contract and he was again sent to the museum for the second contract which had been for another two months. It had ended that January of 1911.

During his two stints working at the Louvre, recounted Peruggia, one of the paintings he had to make a glass case for was the Mona Lisa. He thought that the painting, stolen by Napoléon, should be in Italy; that it should be returned there, and that he would be the one who would do so.

He repeated what he had told Geri; he had not hidden in a cupboard in the museum on the night of Sunday, August 20, 1911. Having kept the white frock he used to wear when he was working in the Louvre, he had walked into the museum’s service entrance at seven on the morning of Monday, August 21, 1911, and unchallenged by the guards, he hung around until the old guard in the Salon Carré had gone off to relieve himself, or perhaps to drink a coffee. Knowing that the paintings were hung from ordinary hooks, he lifted down the Mona Lisa and carried the painting down a staircase that led from the salon. Without any problem he crossed the two courtyards of Cour du Sphinx and Cour Visconti and then found himself at a locked door for which he did not have a key. He had just finished unscrewing the doorknob when one of the museum’s employees – a plumber – came down the stairs, asked him what was going on and on hearing that he could not open the door because the “knob was missing,” unlocked the door for him. Next, he was out on the street and so too the Mona Lisa. He had hailed a taxicab carriage home.

He had, he said, for the past two years kept on working for Gobier and all the time the painting was in his apartment in his travel trunk. He gave the address. It was a cobblestoned cul de sac lane (today it is named Cité Heron) off Rue de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris’s 10tharrondissement (district). It was (still remains) a picturesque area of Paris. Rue de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis runs from the tree-lined Saint-Martin canal along which barges peacefully sail up and down.

Bringing the painting to Italy had not been a problem. He had taken the train and on his arrival in Italy the custom’s official had asked him what was in his travel trunk and he said that it contained his clothes and some working tools, and, having been asked to open it the official had only glanced into it before he told him that he could go.

In France there had not only been a change of president, prime minister and government after an election earlier that year, but of the police who in 1911 had investigated the theft only one – Magistrate Drioux – was still working. A new team of cops therefore set off for the address Peruggia had given the Italians. On the third floor where he said his apartment was, they found not an apartment as such but a small room. It was in a mess; the single bed was unmade and pots and pans stood on a coal stove as if the room’s inhabitant had just popped out to a bakery for a baguette.

There was just one piece of evidence in the room that could be used against Peruggia. The cops found a scribbled list dated 1910 of the names and addresses of art dealers and collectors in the United States, England and in Italy. Geri’s name was with the list of Italian dealers.

The cops did however find in their records that Peruggia had twice been arrested in France; the first for a petty theft for which he spent eight days in jail, the second for the illegal possession of a weapon – a knife – which did not warrant imprisonment. This meant that Bertillon would not only have fingerprinted him but would also have carried out a bertillonage on him. Therefore, how could Bertillon not have identified him from the fingerprint which was on the frame of the Mona Lisa? It was not possible to ask him; suffering from anemia and going blind as a result, he was in Switzerland where he would die six months later in February 1914.

What was more, as the police’s records also revealed, cops had questioned Peruggia in 1911. His name and address had been on a list of employees who had worked in the Louvre which the Gobier company had given the police and because he had not turned up for questioning when summoned an Inspector Brunet had gone to his room. He had told Brunet that he had indeed worked on that Monday of the theft; he had, he said, arrived two hours late for work because he had overslept after a night of drinking. The concierge of the building had confirmed to Brunet that Peruggia had come in very late that Sunday night and Gobier confirmed that Peruggia had been on a job far from the Louvre that Monday after having clocked in two hours late. Brunet had nonetheless searched the room but had not found any paintings, or rather not any masterpieces, but only Peruggia’s own amateur efforts.

France wanted the Mona Lisa returned so that the painting could be put back on display in the Louvre. France also wanted Peruggia returned so that he could be put in the dock. The first request received a favorable reply, but first, the painting would be displayed in the Uffizi and then in museums in Rome and Milan. The reply to the second request was in the negative:   Italy would put Peruggia on trial.

On Wednesday, December 31, an icy day, 20 carabinieri in their black uniforms escorted the Mona Lisa, carefully parceled, back to Paris on the Milan-Paris train. The cops and the painting had a wagon all to themselves and all along the track stood more cops ensuring that no one would attempt to halt the train to steal the painting yet again.

At 2:30 the next afternoon a well-dressed and top-hat delegation led by France’s prime minister and the minister of art awaited the train. France’s tricolor banner was on sight all along the platform of Gare de Lyon when the train steamed in and later along Paris’s boulevards. It was going to be a joyous night in the capital because not only was it New Year’s Eve, but the Mona Lisa was back.

On the contrary, in Italy the mood was gloomy. To the ordinary Italian who did not know that France had not stolen the Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece, the painting’s departure for “the thieving French” was an unbearable loss. To them Peruggia was a great hero. He was in jail and deeply depressed because in his own eyes he was a great hero too.

The Louvre was still to wait before the Mona Lisa would be hung again. First, the painting was taken the École des Beaux-Arts art school and there it was examined, photographed and X-rayed. The experts also had to verify yet again that the painting was indeed the original which had been stolen from the Louvre in 1911.

On Sunday, January 4, a procession of laughing, singing, cheering Parisians escorted the Mona Lisa back to the Louvre.  It was 1914 and the painting had been away for two years and five months.

For the following two days, the painting, back in its old frame, hung in a salon of its own. Almost half a million people filed past it. They did not have to pay to enter: France’s museums were free.  (They are not so today.)

After a few days, the Louvre returned to normality, the Mona Lisa back in the Salon Carré and hanging exactly where it had done when Peruggia had taken it down.

 

Trial

On Thursday, June 4, of that year of 1914, Peruggia’s trial began in Florence.

He wore a gray three-piece suit, upright white collar and a black tie, and his handlebar mustache was neatly trimmed. His former thin almost emaciated frame had broadened; admirers had been sending him food delicacies.

He told the story of how he had removed the Mona Lisa – he still did not regard it as theft – almost with relish, even with bravado. He recounted how he had entered the Louvre, dressed in the white smock he had been given when he had worked in the museum and that he had not aroused suspicion.

“How did you leave?” asked Judge Cavaliere Barilli.

“The way I went in,” replied Peruggia making no reference to the escape route as worked out by the French police.

He denied that he had stolen the painting for money. It was patriotism and nothing else. He did however believe that Italy (the Italians) needed to recompense him financially for having returned the painting to them. That and only that was why he had asked Geri for money. He also ridiculed the testimony of some of his family who had told the Italian investigators that just before the theft of the painting they had received a letter from in which he’d written that he would soon be wealthy.

Similarly, he denied that the purpose of a trip to London he had made after the theft was to sell the painting. He said he had only gone to the English capital to try to establish the financial value of the painting.

He continued to believe that Napoléon had stolen the painting.

“All the Italian paintings in the Louvre the French stole from us,” he stated.

“How do you know that?” asked Judge Barilli.

“I read it in books,” he replied.

Some French in court sniggered at the thought that a handyman could be literate. Some Italians however wept bitterly when he told of how his French fellow workmen had called him a “dirty Italian” and a “Macaroni.”

A psychiatrist testified that Beruggia was “intellectually deficient” and as such was not fully responsible for his actions.  Said the psychiatrist: “I asked myself three questions.  Is Peruggia responsible for the act he committed? Is he partly responsible?  Is he completely responsible?”  He chose the second option.

The psychiatrist could have been influenced by the way Beruggia had spoken to him and the cops about the painting. Referring to the painting as “she” he said that “she” as if he had known the sitter, had mesmerized him so that he had stopped going out in order to remain with her and close to her. (It is generally accepted that the wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo commissioned Leonarda da Vinci to paint a portrait of his wife Lisa. Da Vinci had probably begun the painting around 1503 and, having taken it with him to France, continued to work on it until his death in 1519. The question why Francesco del Giocondo would have wanted a painting of his beloved young – his third – wife when he did not take possession of it remains. For this reason some art scholars say that the painting was not of Lisa del Giocondo but that one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s two protégées – in fact lovers - Giovanni Giacomo di Pietro Caprotti (Salai) dressed in drag had sat for the painting. Other art scholars claim that the painting is a self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci in drag.)

Two days later, Judge Barili announced the verdict. Peruggia was to go to jail for one year and 15 days.

“It could have been worse,” Peruggia was heard to mutter on exiting the court room, handcuffed and flanked by two carabinieri.

Two months later Peruggia’s attorney, Giovanni Carena, successfully appealed the verdict and the sentence was reduced to seven months. As Peruggia had been in prison since the previous  December – longer than the seven months sentence – he was released outright.

Peruggia immediately returned to the Hotel Tripoli-Italia but the owner/manager would not allow him, a man convicted of theft, in.

It was not until Attorney Carena, who was with him, assured the owner/manager that the “gentleman” was not a thief that Peruggia was allowed in.

He was given his old room on the third floor.

He booked in as Vincenzo Peruggia.

As he had seen on arrival, the Tripoli-Italia’s name had been changed to Hotel La Giocondo. The hotel still exists; it is much smarter and more expensive today and Peruggia’s room is never without a guest.

 

Life after the Mona Lisa

Peruggia was penniless. An admirer had sent him a gift of 12,000 lire while he was in prison but the money had dwindled away on legal costs and other living expenditures.

The First World War having broken out on July 28, 1914, he enlisted and in 1918, the war over, he returned to France but only to leave again for Italy and his hometown Dumenza where he married one of his cousins. He yet again wanted to return to Paris and he took his young wife with him. For a while he worked as a lumberjack and then he settled in the community of Saint-Maur-les-Fossés seven miles east of Paris and opened a small shop selling paint. No one in the community realized that Monsieur Pietro Peruggia, as he had started to call himself, was the art thief Vincenzo Peruggia.

He died on Thursday, October 8, 1925 – his 44th birthday – from a heart attack. He collapsed at the feet of his 1-year-old daughter Celestina.

He was buried in the community’s cemetery, but his remains were later removed, cremated and the ashes were scattered in a special memorial garden. In France, a burial plot is sold for either eternity or rented for a period of 50, 75 or 100 years. When the end of such a rental period approaches, the municipal authorities leave a notification on the grave that the plot will be requisitioned unless a new lease is bought and if not the remains will be removed, cremated and scattered in a memorial garden. This was what happened in this case; no one had manifested a wish to renew the lease. In 2008 while the American filmmaker Joe Medeiros was shooting a documentary The Missing Piece about the theft of the Mona Lisa, Celestina,  a widow, living in Italy, had shown him a gravestone marker she had put up for her father in the cemetery in Dumenza.

As Silvio, Celestina’s son, said in a 2011 interview with the Paris daily Le Parisien, what his grandfather had done was never mentioned in the family and he learned of it only when, already an adult, he had come across the history of the theft in an encyclopaedia.

The Peruggia family certainly made no money from Peruggia’s notoriety.

But someone did make money from it – the art dealer Alfredo Geri. He was handed an amount of FF25,000 (about $4,800) by an art lovers society – Les Amis du Louvre – which it had promised to anyone who would give the Louvre information that would lead to the recovery of the Mona Lisa.

He was also further rewarded: France bestowed upon him its highest award for services to the nation: the Legion of Honor.

However, thinking that he had been done short, he sued France for the 10 percent of the value of the recovered “national treasure” as the law allowed.

He lost his case: The court decided that the Mona Lisa was beyond price.

 

The Mona Lisa today

There is always a crowd admiring the Mona Lisa
There is always a crowd admiring the Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece still hangs in Salon Carré where millions (8.8 million in 2011) admire it each year.

The painting is protected against vandalism as well as the elements by a triplex glass case 157 x 98 inches in size. The case is kept permanently at a temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit and 55 percent humidity which is controlled by an air-conditioning system specially designed for the Louvre. The air-conditioning system even has a back-up in case the first breaks down.

Is it possible today for someone to just walk out with the Mona Lisa or any other artwork under the arm?

No it is not. The Louvre is now equipped not only with spy cameras throughout but also with a sophisticated alarm system.

And the guards are no longer retired servicemen, but trained young security men and women.

 

Postscript: Homolle became head of the National Library of France and died in 1925 of natural causes, aged 77. Bénédite died in 1926 aged 69 immediately after having been down into the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt which was attributed to the “Curse of the Pharaohs” which killed anyone who disturbed the mummy of a pharaoh.

Apollinaire had only seven years to live after his arrest: Having enlisted in the First World War he died when a shrapnel wound he suffered had become infectious.

Piéret, who was wanted by the French police, had, as far as was known, never set foot in France again. One story has it that he had set off for the United States where he had worked as a cowboy and there he had died.

Picasso remained living in France and became one of the world’s most famous painters, his work today selling for millions of dollars. He died, aged 91, in Mougins, a town in the hills above Cannes famous for its film festival.

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