Written by Bella Dalima
14 Dec, 2013 | 5:28 pm
The most famous act of theft associated with the Mona Lisa took place about a century ago.
December 14, 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the return of the world’s most famous painting to public display, after it was stolen in 1911 from the world’s most famous museum. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was swiped from the under-secured Louvre Museum by an amateur Italian painter and handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia.
Peruggia was under the mistaken impression that the painting had been looted by Napoleon, during his Italian campaign. This was a pretty good guess, for through his art theft unit (the first military unit in history dedicated to art theft), Napoleon had made off with tens of thousands of artworks during his Italian campaign. Leonardo’s painting was not among them, however, as it had left Italy with the elderly Leonardo, when he spent his twilight years under the protection of the French king, Francois I, who legally purchased several of his paintings after his death, the Mona Lisa among them.
But Peruggia had missed the lecture on this historical detail. He saw an opportunity to repatriate the painting when the firm for which he worked as a carpenter and glazier was hired to build protective cases to cover some of the Louvre’s most famous works, ostensibly to protect them from attack, after an anarchist had slashed an Ingres painting in protest.
Peruggia found himself with a Louvre worker’s uniform, and direct contact with the Mona Lisa. On the night before August 2 1911, he hid inside a closet in the Louvre, waiting for the footfalls of the night guards to fade into the distance. In the early morning hours, he slipped out of the closet, removed the Mona Lisa from its wall in the Salon Carre of the Louvre, and retreated to a service staircase. There he took the painting out of its frame, wrapped it in a white sheet, and headed down the stairs.
There was surely a moment of great panic, when Peruggia twisted the doorknob at the foot of the stairs, and found it locked from the inside. He was prepared for an eventuality such as this, and had tools with him. He unscrewed the doorknob and slipped it into his pocket, thinking this might unlock the door, but it didn’t.
He was trapped inside the Louvre, with the world’s most famous painting tucked under his arm…and then he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Up the stairs came a plumber, making his morning rounds. To the plumber, Peruggia looked like a Louvre worker who had accidentally been locked in overnight—not an unheard-of occurrence. He opened the door and let Peruggia out, thinking nothing of the Mona Lisa-shaped package that Peruggia carried with him.
It would be two years before the Mona Lisa was seen again. The investigation was a fiasco that resulted in the dismissal of the head of the Louvre and the head of the Paris police. International media mocked the lack of security at the Louvre — in fact, this was the first theft to spark the interest of the world media, kicking off a love affair with the elite world of high-priced art, and its theft.
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