Stealing the Mona Lisa: A Minute-by-Minute Account of the World's Most Famous Art Theft, A Century After the Fact
Vincenzo Peruggia breathed in heavily the scent of his sweat as he waited, barely willing to exhale, in the tight, dark closet beside the Salle des Sept Martres gallery in the Louvre. He listened for the footfalls of the guards. They gradually grew louder in a painfully slow crescendo. For an exquisite moment they seemed to stop right outside the door against which his ear was propped, but then continued into the distance, echoing along the length of the corridor and into the night museum.
Peruggia knew that the Louvre had over 400 rooms, but only 200 guards, with a great many fewer who patrolled the corridors by night. He knew the precise manner in which his quarry hung in the darkness ahead of him. He knew what he would say, if he were caught: he was just an employee of a company that had been subcontracted by the Louvre. But nothing would help him if he were found with the painting in hand.
He had been working at the museum over two four-month periods as a handyman, most recently involved in constructing wooden and glass cases used to protect some of the Louvre's most famous paintings from the threat of anarchists, whom the directorship feared might target a masterpiece for vandalism as a means of political protest after a woman slashed an Ingres painting in 1907. He was one of five workers in charge of cutting and cleaning glass to build these cases in October 1910. An amateur painter, born in Dumenza (near Milan), he had been living in Paris for many years, a member of a community of expatriate Italians in the City of Light. It was the heart of the art world, and as an aspiring artist of whatever limited talent, it was the place to be. From a pragmatic standpoint, it was a good deal easier to find work in France than it was in Italy, during a period that saw the mass exodus of unemployed lower-class Italians leaving for fairer shores. Most went to the United States. But for an art lover, Paris was a far better destination.
When Peruggia was as certain as he could be that the guards had moved on, he carefully twisted the handle of the wooden closet door and peeked out. When he saw no one, he slipped out of the stairwell and into the gallery, gently shutting the door behind him.
It was around 7:15 on Monday morning, and a gentle light filtered in through the windows of the galleries. He navigated as much by memory as by sight, moving from the closet to the Grande Gallerie and then the Salon Carré, which displayed the gems of the Louvre collection — works by Raphael, Titian, van Eyck, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and many more. It did not take him long to reach his target: the most famous painting in the world. La Joconde, La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa.
Peruggia was under the impression that the Mona Lisa had been looted from Italy by Napoleon's army during his Italian Campaign of 1792-1797. This was a pretty fair guess, considering that Napoleon took tens of thousands of artworks from Italy during his time in power. Napoleon was responsible for establishing the first known military division dedicated to confiscating artworks, and for insisting on the transfer of art and antiquities from the collections of the vanquished to the Louvre. "You give us your art, or we don't stop shooting," was the message conveyed by his 1796 Modena Armistice, the first known military document to specify the payment in artworks as a requisite for ceasefire. Napoleon used the excuse of official art confiscation as a means of stealing works for his private collection, and his slippery-fingered officers lifted literally thousands of works, particularly prints and drawings, for themselves, while shipping the largest and most famous works back to Paris. More than a century later the Nazis would take a note from Napoleon's books and institute their own art looting division, which also sought to strip Europe of its art, the Mona Lisa included. Much of the Italian art on display in the Louvre in 1911 was looted by Napoleon. Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait was not.
Leonardo lived in France at the end of his life, under the patronage of François I, who greatly admired Leonardo and, by some accounts, was friendly with him. After Leonardo's death in 1519, François legally bought his estate from his assistant and executor — this included the Mona Lisa, which was said to be Leonardo's favorite of his own paintings, and which it is believed he never deemed finished.
As part of the French Royal Collections, the Mona Lisa had hung at the castle of Fontainebleau before it was sent for display at the Louvre, which was itself formerly the French royal residence in Paris and which Napoleon had made into a public art gallery and which, for a time, would bear the name Musée Napoleon.
But Vincenzo Peruggia did not know these details. He believed firmly that Mona Lisa (which he would have referred to by its Italian nickname, La Gioconda) had been stolen from Italy by Napoleon — and that, in stealing it back in order to repatriate it, he would be welcomed in Italy as a national hero. If he were able to profit personally in some way for his troubles, so much the better. But this was a crime which was meant to reverse an older crime, and therefore for Peruggia, it was not only morally excusable — it was practically the duty of a proud Italian to take back what had been torn by force from his ancestors. Like a Roman eagle lost in battle, the Mona Lisa must be returned to its rightful home, whatever the risk.
When his work as a handyman had led him to a firm that was hired by the Louvre to create protective cases for certain works in the museum's collection, Peruggia knew that fate had provided him with a fortuitous opportunity. He had an "in" — a Louvre uniform and access to at least some of the paintings, plus entry to the service corridors, workshops, and stairwells in the vast museum. A plan slowly formed in his mind. The opportunity was there as well as the motive — primarily ideological, with the possibility of profit as an added benefit.
Now Peruggia stood in the morning half-light, the museum like a mist around him, the eyes of dozens of paintings glaring at him from the packed walls. He lifted the Mona Lisa from the wall. It was heavy, painted on poplar wood and in a substantial frame. It was also hung in a particular way, by four iron nails that required the shifting of the painting in order for it to smoothly release from the wall. The fact that he did not have to bang the painting around as he worked it off of the nails would later provide a clue for the investigating detectives that they were dealing with someone who had insider knowledge — but it would bring them no closer to catching Peruggia, who would only be apprehended when he eventually turned himself in. With the Mona Lisa supported under his arm and sweat creasing his back, Peruggia retreated as quietly and quickly as he could to a service stairwell. He had not encountered a single guard.
In the darkness of the stairwell, Peruggia removed the Mona Lisa from its cumbersome glazed frame, cutting it out of the gray bands of fabric that tied it in place. He wrapped the wooden panel painting in a white sheet he had brought with him. His heart raced, but he could not believe his luck. His plan had proceeded smoothly — now came the easy part.
He wound his way down the spiral service staircase to the door at its foot, which opened onto the Court of the Sphinx, from which he could access the Visconti Court, and then vanish into the early-morning darkness of the sleeping city. At the foot of the stairs, he reached out. His moist palm clasped the brass doorknob and twisted.
It was locked.
He took a deep breath to quell the panic. He had thought that the door would not be locked from the inside. But he was prepared. Just in case such a development arose, he had brought a small kit of tools with him. He gingerly placed the Mona Lisa, carefully wrapped in its white sheet, on the floor beside him, then knelt and worked on the stubborn locked door. He might have thought to remove the door from its hinges, but dismissed this approach. Instead he unscrewed the doorknob itself, reasoning that the door would swing open without the doorknob to keep the bolt in place.
It was not to be. The door's lock was independent of the doorknob. What were his options? Breaking down the door was not a good one. It was built firmly to keep thieves out, and he would make such a ruckus that the guards would rush to the scene.
Vincenzo Peruggia slumped to the floor. He was trapped inside the Louvre, with the world's most famous painting, freshly stolen, wrapped in a sheet beside him.
He fought down the panic and tried to think clearly. He was dressed as a Louvre worker. He knew that it was not unheard-of for workers to be inadvertently locked into the museum at night, while it was so unusual as to be preposterous to think that someone dressed as a Louvre employee had just stolen something and managed to lock himself inside.
Then he heard approaching footsteps.
A plumber, making his rounds, suddenly appeared beneath him, climbing the staircase. Peruggia quickly stuffed the doorknob into his pocket. The plumber glanced at him.
"Open the door for me," Peruggia requested, trying to sound as unsuspicious as the circumstances would permit.
The plumber, who had not noticed the rectangular white-wrapped package leaning against the wall, unlocked the door and let Peruggia out into the Court of the Sphinx.
What the plumber made of all this is, unfortunately, not clearly recorded, beyond his recollection of unlocking the door for someone who, to him, seemed to be a Louvre employee who had been accidentally locked in at night and was looking for an exit. There is no record of what the plumber thought of the fact that the door he was asked to unlock was missing its doorknob.
Peruggia muttered a thank you as he hurried out of the stairwell, the cool morning air refreshing his sweat-stained skin.
It was around 7:30 a.m. when Peruggia emerged from the Court of the Sphinx and headed towards the Visconti Court, which exited onto the street, Quai du Louvre. Luck was on his side — the guard who normally watches the Visconti Court entrance was not at his post. Peruggia slipped through the exit, removing his white Louvre worker’s apron as he stepped into the street. An employee of a store across from the museum recalled a man with a rectangular package under his arm hurrying towards the Pont du Carrousel. At the time he did not think twice when he saw this Louvre worker disappear into the distance, carrying a Mona Lisa-shaped object wrapped in a white sheet under his arm. It was only in retrospect that he recalled thinking it was odd that the employee had thrown a doorknob over his shoulder as he left. Thus, on August 21, 1911, transpired the most famous art theft in history.
This Sunday marks 100th anniversary of the theft of the Mona Lisa. It represents not only the most famous art heist in history, but quite possibly the most famous property theft, bar none.
The theft proved a huge embarrassment not only the museum but for France as a whole, and it sparked a media feeding frenzy, mocking the Louvre for its inability to keep its treasures safe. This was the first international art crime, and perhaps the first property theft, to receive regular international news coverage. The resulting investigation by French authorities was botched and, despite having Peruggia's fingerprint on the discarded frame of the painting, and despite having interrogated him on two occasions, he was not considered a suspect.
Nearly two years later, Peruggia showed up in Florence with the Mona Lisa hidden in the false bottom of a shipping trunk. He contacted a local art dealer, Alfredo Geri, and informed him that he hoped to give the Mona Lisa to the Uffizi Museum. He did not specifically request any money, but implied that he was a poor man and that some compensation would be welcome. He was surprised and exhibited no guilty conscience when he was arrested at his hotel in Florence, after having passed the Mona Lisa over to the Uffizi director.
Peruggia claimed throughout his arrest and trial that his only intention was to repatriate the Mona Lisa, which he believed had been looted from Italy. Peruggia did hope for some monetary compensation, and was not shy about saying as much, believing that he would be welcomed in Italy as a hero for the risks he took to bring the Mona Lisa back to its "native land."
During his trial, which was followed by the world press, he became a romantic figure, an amateur painter who risked everything for patriotism and a love of art. There was some evidence that he considered selling the painting before deciding to smuggle it back to Italy — a list was found in his apartment of prominent art dealers in major cities around the world. Peruggia's version of the story says that he kept the painting for so long because it cast a sort of spell over him (a not uncommon comment for art thieves to make), fascinated him, and rendered him unable to part with it. At the end of the trial, the judge sentenced Peruggia to 380 days in prison, which was appealed and lowered to seven months. The Mona Lisa was displayed at several museums in Italy to enormous crowds before it was returned to Paris.
This is the most famous example of ideologically driven thefts, although one must be wary of assuming that the theft was purely ideological when its possible Peruggia simply abandoned plans to sell the painting when that proved too difficult, shifting to the heroic repatriation — which the criminal surely knew would win him supporters — as a plan B. The entire incident was so well covered by world media that they influenced how the general public sees art theft: relatively innocuous, involving the collectibles of the elite, and not particularly frightening. The public perception has not caught up with reality. Since the Second World War, the majority of art crime has involved organized crime, and even terrorist groups fund themselves in part through the illicit trade in art and antiquities. The United States Department of Justice ranks art crime as the third highest-grossing criminal trade, behind only drugs and arms.
While stories like the Mona Lisa theft entertain, inform, and intrigue, we must be aware that they represent a high-profile minority of real art crimes, which are far more sinister and devastating than the public generally realizes.
Noah Charney is an internationally best-selling author and professor of art history who writes a regular column for ARTINFO entitled "The Secret History of Art." A number of Charney's recent columns have explored other aspects of the mysteries behind the Mona Lisa.
The dramatization that begins this article, based on extensive research, is an excerpt from the author's new book, "The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World's Most Famous Painting" (ARCA Publications), which tells the true story not only of the 1911 theft, but also of the 1907 "affaire des statuettes" (in which Picasso and Apollinaire were interrogated about their involvement), the many vandalism attempts against the painting, and the mystery as to whether the Nazis stole the Mona Lisa during the Second World War. All profits from the sale of the print edition of this book go to charity.