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Theft of the Century

Updated: Jun 17

On August 20, 1911, a man walked into the Louvre, and, when no one was looking, hid in a closet. The next morning, he emerged, now wearing the white worker’s smocks that were the uniform of Louvre employees. As it was a Monday, the museum was closed. No visitors were there to see this man enter the Salon Carré, the Renaissance gallery, and take La Joconde (the Mona Lisa) off the wall. 

As he tried to leave the building, he was stopped by a locked door in the stairwell. Anxious to make his escape, he began to disassemble the doorknob. He made little progress before a plumber came down the stairs. The thief took off the glass case from the Mona Lisa, and hid the painting under his shirt. When the plumber found who he believed was one of his co-workers stuck in the stairwell, he happily unlocked the door. 

The thief then disappeared into the streets of Paris. It would be 26 hours until someone even noticed the painting was missing, and over two years until the Mona Lisa returned to her home at the Louvre. 

A Missing Masterpiece

Sounding the Alarm

The guards weren’t worried about the empty space on the wall, as the paintings were periodically removed for photography and maintenance. It wasn’t until a wealthy patron and amateur painter asked where the Mona Lisa was that the guards found the glass in the stairwell, and realized the painting wasn’t in the museum. That evening came the police announcement, followed by a wave of media reports. 

Prior to this series of events, the Mona Lisa wasn’t a particularly famous painting. One of the papers to run the story of the theft actually printed the wrong artwork in their newspaper. But as the story grew bigger and bigger, everyone from Paris to New York would recognize the lost painting. This was happening in a time when newspapers were rapidly gaining in popularity, and news of the theft was sensational. Crowds made long lines outside the Louvre for the first time , all to see the empty space on the wall in the Salon Carré. 

After interviewing all 200 employees of the Louvre, the police offered a 40,000 franc reward for information about the painting, and soon everyone and their neighbor had a tip to give to the police. Conspiracies abounded, and alleged sightings of the Mona Lisa were reported all around the world. None of this information was credible, and for a while, the police had nothing. 

Until police arrested poet Guillaume Apollinaire. He and his secretary had a falling out, and the secretary went to the Paris Journal with information about stolen art. When questioned by police, Apollinaire gave up Pablo Picasso, who returned statues stolen by Apollinaire’s secretary in 1907. But Picasso knew nothing about the Mona Lisa.

A Suspect Emerges 

Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian living in Paris, and he had worked briefly for a company that cut glass for paintings at the Louvre. Because of this, police had interviewed him the day of the theft, but hadn’t confirmed his ‘alibi’ that he was working elsewhere during the robbery. In reality, the Mona Lisa had been stashed in a trunk in his apartment even while the police interviewed him there. 

Vincenzo Peruggia

He was caught after writing to an Italian antiques dealer indicating he had the painting. The dealer authenticated the piece, then contacted the police. Peruggia was caught, and brought to trial.

Peruggia was heated in court, arguing even with his own lawyer. He claimed a sense of patriotism fueled his anger and the theft. Peruggia was under the impression that Napoleon had looted the Mona Lisa from Italy, and expected to be heralded as a hero for bringing the painting home. However, he was the only one who had taken the painting from where it belonged. The Mona Lisa came to France in 1516 when Da Vinci gifted it to King Francois I. 

However, Peruggia’s patriotism resonated with the jury, earning him only a short prison sentence. 

A Journey Home

The Mona Lisa returned to France after a brief trip around Italy. 120,000 people went to the Louvre to see the painting in its first two days home. Speculation began anew around her mysterious half-smile. 

Today the piece is well protected by guards and bulletproof glass and it sits in its own climate controlled box. It attracts over 8 million visitors annually, all thanks to a world-famous heist. 

Written by Jasmine Grace, University intern

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