Who Stole the Mona Lisa?

The world’s most famous art heist, 100 years on.

The Mona Lisa

On Monday morning, Aug. 21, 1911, inside the Louvre museum in Paris, a plumber named Sauvet came upon an unidentified man stuck in front of a locked door. The man—wearing a white smock, like all the Louvre’s maintenance staff—pointed out to Sauvet that the doorknob was missing. The helpful Sauvet opened the door with his key and some pliers. The man walked out of the museum and into the Parisian heatwave. Hidden under his smock was Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”

The art theft of the century helped make the Mona Lisa what she is today. The world’s popular newspapers—a new phenomenon in 1911—and the French police searched everywhere for the culprit. At one point they even suspected Pablo Picasso. Only one person was ever arrested for the crime in France: the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. But the police found the thief only when he finally outed himself.

Stealing “La Joconde”—the woman in the portrait is probably the Florentine silk merchant’s wife Lisa del Giocondo—was not particularly difficult. The main thing it took was nerve. Like the Louvre’s other paintings, she was barely guarded. She wasn’t fixed to the wall. The Louvre was closed on Mondays. August is Paris’s quietest month. On that particular Monday morning, the few caretakers were mostly busy cleaning.

At 7.20am the thief was probably hiding in the storage closet where he may have spent the night. All he had to do was wait until the elderly ex-soldier who was guarding several rooms had wandered off, then lift the frame off its hooks, remove the frame from the painting, and shove the wooden panel on which Da Vinci had painted under his smock. The thief had chosen the Mona Lisa partly because she was so small: just 53cm x 77cm. His one stumble was finding the door to his escape locked. He had already removed the doorknob with a screwdriver before the plumber arrived to save him. By 8.30am, Mona Lisa was gone.

Twelve hours later, writes the French author Jérôme Coignard in Une femme disparaît, one of several books on the crime, the caretaker in charge reported that everything was normal. Even the next morning, Tuesday, nobody had yet noticed Mona Lisa’s absence. Paintings in the Louvre often disappeared briefly. The museum’s photographers were free to take works to their studio at will, without signing them out.

When the painter Louis Béroud arrived in the Louvre’s Salon Carré on Tuesday morning to sketch the Mona Lisa, and found only four iron hooks in the wall, he presumed the photographers had her. Béroud joked with the guard: “Of course Paupardin, when women are not with their lovers, they are apt to be with their photographers.” But when Mona Lisa was still absent at 11am, Béroud sent Paupardin to ask the photographers when she would be back, recounts the American author R.A. Scotti in her excellent recent account, Vanished Smile. The photographers said they hadn’t taken her and the alarm was raised. In the corner of a service stairway, police found the glass box that had contained the painting, and the frame donated two years earlier by the Comtesse de Béarn.

The newspapers put the theft on their front pages. “We still have the frame,” added the Petit Parisien daily in a sarcastic strapline. The far-right Action Française newspaper blamed the Jews.

Critics had pointed out the lack of security, but the museum had taken only a few eccentric corrective measures: teaching the elderly guards judo, for instance. Jean Théophile Homolle, director of all France’s national museums, had assured the press before leaving on his summer holidays that the Louvre was secure. “You might as well pretend that one could steal the towers of the cathedral of Notre-Dame,” he said. After the theft, the French journalist Francis Charmes would comment: “La Joconde was stolen because nobody believed she could be.”

“Some judges regard the painting as the finest existing,” noted The New York Times. But even before Mona Lisa disappeared she was more than a painting. Leonardo’s feat was to have made her almost a person. “Mona Lisa is painted at eye level and almost life-size, both disconcertingly real and transcendent,” writes Scotti. Many romantics responded to the picture as if to a woman. Mona Lisa received love letters and was given a touch more surveillance than the Louvre’s other works, because some visitors stared at the “aphrodisiac” painting and became “visibly emotional”, writes Coignard. In 1910, one lover had shot himself before her eyes. After the theft, a French psychology professor suggested that the thief might be a sexual psychopath who would enjoy “mutilating, stabbing, defiling” Mona Lisa.

But nobody knew who the thief was, nor how he would profit from his haul. Monsieur Bénédite, the Louvre’s assistant curator, told The New York Times: “Why the theft was committed is a mystery to me, as I consider the picture valueless in the hands of a private individual.” If you had the Mona Lisa, what could you do with her?

The stricken Louvre closed for a week, but when it reopened, on Tuesday August 29, queues formed outside for the first time ever. People were streaming in to see the empty space where Mona Lisa had hung. Unwittingly, Coignard writes, the Louvre was exhibiting the first conceptual installation in the history of art: the absence of a painting.

Among the many who saw it were two Prague writers travelling through Europe on the cheap: Max Brod and Franz Kafka. On their travels they had had a brilliant idea: to write a series of guidebooks (On the Cheap in Switzerland, On the Cheap in Paris, etcetera) for other budget travellers. Kafka always was ahead of his time.

Meanwhile, the Mona Lisa was becoming a sensation. “In a thousand years,” wrote the Da Vinci-devotee Joséphin Péladan, “people will ask of the year 1911: ‘what did you do with the Joconde?’” Scotti writes: “Chorus lines made up with the face of Mona Lisa danced topless in the cabarets of Paris … Comedians asked, ‘Will the Eiffel Tower be next?’”

The painting was celebrated in new popular songs (“It couldn’t be stolen, we guard her all the time, except on Mondays”). Mona Lisa postcards sold in unprecedented numbers worldwide. Her face advertised everything from cigarettes (“I only smoke Zigomar”) to corsets. In fact, no painting had ever previously been reproduced on such a scale. As Scotti said, she had suddenly become both “high culture” and “a staple of consumer culture.” The Dutch painter Kees van Dongen was one of the few to puncture the hype: “She has no eyebrows and a funny smile. She must have had nasty teeth to smile so tightly.”

The French police were under international pressure to find the thief. All they had to go on was a fingerprint he had left on the wall, and the doorknob he had thrown into a ditch outside. Sauvet, the plumber who had let him out, was shown countless photographs of Louvre employees past and present, but could not recognise the thief. Employees and ex-employees were interrogated and fingerprinted—a newfangled technique in 1911—but nobody’s print matched the thief’s.

The Parisian police suspected the heist must be the work of a sophisticated ring of art thieves. In late August, they thought they had found them. A bisexual Belgian adventurer named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret had appeared at the offices of Le Journal, and sold the newspaper an Iberian statuette that he had previously stolen from the Louvre. He also talked of having stolen a statue of a woman’s head from the museum, and having sold it to a painter friend. If these crooks had taken the statuettes, the police reasoned, they probably had the Mona Lisa too.

Géry often stayed in Paris with his friend Apollinaire, the poet, who had once called for the Louvre to be burned down. Apollinaire and Picasso were chums. After Géry’s revelations, the two men panicked. Picasso still kept two ancient Iberian statuettes, stolen by Géry, in his cupboard in Montmartre. In fact he had used the heads as models for a brothel scene he had painted in 1907. “’Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ was the first picture to bear the mark of cubism,” Picasso recounted years later. “You will recall the affair in which I was involved when Apollinaire stole some statuettes from the Louvre? They were Iberian statuettes … Well, if you look at the ears of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, you will recognise the ears of those pieces of sculpture!” Perhaps he had even commissioned Géry’s theft with the Demoiselles in mind.

At midnight on September 5, Picasso and Apollinaire sneaked out of Picasso’s apartment and lugged the statuettes for miles in a suitcase across Paris. They had agreed to dump them into the River Seine. But, writes Scotti, in the end they didn’t dare. On September 7, detectives arrested Apollinaire. He broke down and named Picasso. Both men cried under interrogation. Yet in court Picasso contradicted everything he had told police, and swore ignorance of the whole business. Shown Apollinaire, he said: “I have never seen him before.” Eventually the police gave up on them.

In December 1912 the Louvre hung a portrait by Raphael on its blank wall. The Mona Lisa had been given up for dead.

The world had mostly forgotten her when on November 29 1913 an antique dealer in Florence named Alfredo Geri received a letter postmarked Poste Restante, Place de la République, Paris. The author, who signed himself “Leonardo”, wrote: “The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an Italian.”

Geri showed the letter to Giovanni Poggi, director of Florence’s Uffizi gallery. Then Geri replied to “Leonardo.” After some toing-and-froing, “Leonardo” said it would be no trouble for him to bring the painting to Florence.

Geri’s shop was just a few streets from where Da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa 400 years before. On the evening of December 10 “Leonardo” unexpectedly walked in. He was a tiny man, just 5ft 3in tall, with a waxed moustache. When Geri asked whether his Mona Lisa was real, “Leonardo” replied that he had stolen her from the wall of the Louvre himself. He said he wanted to “return” her to Italy in exchange for 500,000 lire in “expenses.” He had only 1.95 French francs in his pocket.

Geri arranged to come with Poggi to see the painting in “Leonardo’s” room in the Tripoli-Italia hotel the next day. They went up to room 20 on the third floor. Leonardo locked the door, dragged a case from under his bed, rummaged in it, threw out some junk, pulled out a package, and unwrapped it to reveal the Mona Lisa.

The three men agreed that Poggi and Geri would take the painting to the Uffizi to authenticate it. On their way out the two were stopped by an alert hotel clerk, who thought they were stealing a painting from the hotel wall. At the Uffizi, Poggi established from the pattern of cracks in the painting that it was the real thing. When news reached the Italian parliament—”The Mona Lisa has been found!”—a fist-fight between deputies immediately turned into embraces, writes Scotti.

After handing over the painting, “Leonardo” had calmly gone sightseeing in Florence. But to his surprise, he was arrested in his hotel room by Italian police. As Monsieur Bénédite of the Louvre had warned, the picture had proven valueless in the hands of a private individual.

The thief turned out to be Vincenzo Peruggia, a 32-year-old Italian who lived in Paris. He was a house painter-cum-glazier. He suffered from lead poisoning. He lived in one room at 5 rue de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis, in a neighbourhood of eastern Paris that even today, a century on, is largely immigrant and not entirely gentrified. The Mona Lisa had spent two years mostly on his kitchen table. “I fell in love with her,” Peruggia said from jail, repeating the romantic cliché. The court-appointed psychiatrist diagnosed him as “mentally deficient”.

The French police really ought to have found him. Peruggia had briefly worked in the Louvre. In fact, he had made the Mona Lisa’s glass frame—the very one he had removed that August morning. A detective had even visited his apartment, but had failed to spot the painting. Moreover, Peruggia had two previous criminal convictions for minor incidents (one a scuffle with a prostitute) so the police had his fingerprints. Unfortunately, the famous detective Alphonse Bertillon—the real-life French Sherlock Holmes—who was on the Mona Lisa case, only catalogued the right fingerprints of suspects. Peruggia had left his left print on the Louvre’s wall.

He was locked up until his trial began in Florence on June 4 1914. Questioned by police, journalists, and later in court, Peruggia gave varying contradictory accounts of how exactly he had got in and out of the Louvre. He had walked out, carrying the painting, “with the greatest nonchalance”, he told the court. He said he had initially got on the wrong bus, and had finally taken the Mona Lisa home in a taxi.

Under questioning, Peruggia emerged as the kind of disgruntled immigrant who in a different time and a different place might have turned to terrorism instead of art theft. In Paris he had often been insulted as a “macaroni.” French people had stolen from him, and put salt and pepper in his wine. When he had mentioned to a colleague at the Louvre that the museum’s most esteemed paintings were Italian, the colleague had chuckled.

Peruggia had once seen a picture of Napoleon’s troops carting stolen Italian art to France. He said he had become determined to return at least one stolen painting, the handily portable Mona Lisa, to Italy. In fact, he was labouring under a gargantuan misapprehension: the French hadn’t stolen the Mona Lisa at all. Da Vinci had spent his final years in France. His last patron, the French king François I, had bought the painting, apparently legally, for 4,000 gold crowns.

After Peruggia’s arrest there had been a brief flare-up of patriotic “peruggisme” in Italy, but it soon died down. Most people were disappointed in Peruggia’s calibre. He was more Lee Harvey Oswald than the criminal mastermind they had imagined. “He was, quite clearly, a classic loser,” says Donald Sassoon in his book Becoming Mona Lisa. Despite Peruggia’s claims to patriotism—”I am an Italian and I do not want the picture given back to the Louvre”—it emerged in court that he had visited London to try to flog the painting to the dealer Duveen, who had laughed at him.

The mention of this story prompted Peruggia’s only show of anger during the trial. He had previously described the attempted sale himself, but in court he loudly denied it. One judge said, “Nevertheless, your unselfishness wasn’t total. You did expect some benefit from restoration.”

“Ah, benefit, benefit,” sighed Peruggia. “Certainly something better than what happened to me here.” The courtroom laughed.

Yet he had compiled lists of dealers and art collectors, who, he presumably hoped, might buy his painting. He had also written to his family in Italy saying that soon he would be rich. (“Romantic words, your honour,” Peruggia explained in court.) Joe Medeiros, an American filmmaker who is finishing a documentary about the theft, believes Peruggia was motivated chiefly by an immigrant’s pride. “He was a guy who wasn’t typically respected,” says Medeiros, “and I think he thought he was better than he was given credit for, so he set out to prove it. And I guess in some strange, perverse way he did prove it. He wasn’t as dumb as people thought.”

Peruggia was lucky to be tried in Italy rather than France. In Italy, his lawyer said in his closing argument, to applause from spectators and tears from the defendant, “there is nobody who desires the condemnation of the accused.” Nobody had lost anything from the theft, the lawyer pointed out. Mona Lisa had been recovered. She was now more famous than ever. She had made a brief, joyous tour of Italy before returning to the Louvre. Relations between Italy and France had improved.

Peruggia received a sentence of one year and 15 days in jail. Some weeks later, on July 29, it was reduced to seven months and nine days. He was released at once because of time served.

By then, in any case, the world had bigger things to worry about. While Peruggia was on trial, the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in Sarajevo. On July 28 Austro-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. The Great War was starting. The theft and return of Mona Lisa was one of the last happy stories Europe would enjoy for another 30 years.

Freed, Peruggia returned to the hotel where he had met Geri, and found that it had already been renamed La Gioconda. (It still exists under the same name today.) Peruggia served in the Italian army during the first world war, but later returned to France and opened a paint shop in a village in Haute-Savoie. He died there on his 44th birthday in 1925, perhaps from the consequences of lead poisoning. He left a wife and baby daughter (who herself died in Italy this March, aged 86). The public never noticed his death. The only obituaries to the thief of the Mona Lisa appeared, mistakenly, in 1947, when another Vincenzo Peruggia died in France.

The feeling never quite passed that the Mona Lisa deserved a more impressive thief. In 1932 the famous American journalist Karl Decker supplied one. Decker, in his younger years an inventive reporter for the Hearst newspapers, published an article in the Saturday Evening Post headlined, “Why and How the Mona Lisa Was Stolen”.

Decker said he had waited so long to publish because he had promised his source he would reveal all only after the source’s death. In 1914 in Casablanca, wrote Decker, he had run into an old friend, an Argentine conman known as the Marques de Valfierno. Over brandies, the Marques had told Decker that Peruggia had merely been an agent in the Marques’ own perfect crime. First the Marques had had a French master-forger, Chaudron, make six copies of the Mona Lisa. The Marques had openly shipped them to the US. Then he arranged for Peruggia to nab the Mona Lisa. After that, the Marques had sold the six copies secretly to American collectors, for millions of dollars each, pretending each time that the copy was the real Mona Lisa. The only flaw in the plan, the Marques had told Decker, was that that fool Peruggia had then tried to flog the actual painting.

Here at last was a criminal brain worthy of the Mona Lisa. The only problem is that Decker almost certainly invented him. There is no external evidence for Decker’s story, nor even for the Marques’ existence. A century later, none of the six supposed copies has surfaced. Most likely, Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa single-handed, largely because she was small.

The other day I went to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. I wasn’t the only one. From the moment you enter the museum, you see signs pointing to her smiling face (or as W. Somerset Maugham called it, “the insipid smile of that prim and sex-starved young woman”). You walk into the room where she hangs and find a ruck of a couple of hundred people, their backs to you, many with mobile phones above their heads taking photographs. Somewhere in the distance is a surprisingly small picture of a smiling woman, mostly obscured by phones. She is behind a frame and a second plate of glass, which protects her but also distorts her colours. Her beauty is lost. Unless you are a connoisseur of mob scenes, there is little here to enjoy. You envy Peruggia his time alone with her in his room two miles from here.

You can see the Louvre’s strategy. It has sacrificed the Mona Lisa for the museum. By guiding visitors towards the painting, it pockets their €10 yet keeps a swathe of them away from the rest of the collection. Most of the Louvre is relatively calm. Other great works, many of them looted at considerable effort by Napoleon, draw little attention. You can stand alone admiring Raphaels for a minute or two at a time.

It’s not that the Mona Lisa is better than the museum’s other paintings. The point is that they are paintings and she is a person. That’s partly because of Da Vinci’s genius, and partly because of the myth that has grown up around her. It’s often said, for instance, that wherever you stand in front of the Mona Lisa, her eyes will follow you. Sassoon writes: “In reality the effect can be obtained from any portrait.”

Her myth stems, in part, from the story of her theft and return. “A painting had been turned, anthropomorphically, into a person, a celebrity,” says Sassoon. Peruggia, by choosing Mona Lisa that morning, helped elevate her above all other paintings. That—and a good story—is his legacy.

Additional research by Pauline Harris.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.