Remembering the day when Mona Lisa went missing, a look at how 'art heist of the century' was committed

'Mona Lisa' is believed to be the portrait of an Italian noblewoman named Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine cloth and silk merchant


                            Remembering the day when Mona Lisa went missing, a look at how 'art heist of the century' was committed
(Roger-Viollet/Getty Images)

The 'Mona Lisa' is one of the finest examples of Renaissance art and an international treasure. The 16th-century oil painting is a portrait of an enigmatic woman, whose captivating gaze and mysterious smiles has captured the fascination of audiences for centuries, is one of Italian painter, Leonardo da Vinci's best-known works in his oeuvre. The seated woman against an imaginary background has long been associated with portrayals of the Virgin Mary, but only in 2005, almost five centuries it was created, is when a breakthrough in decades worth of research discovered the identity of the woman that was da Vinci's muse. 'Mona Lisa' is believed to be the portrait of an Italian noblewoman named Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine cloth and silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo.

Da Vinci had begun working on the painting while he was at home in Italy, but he did not complete it until he was invited to France by King Francois I. After he had finished it, the French king put the painting on display in his Fontainebleau Palace where it remained for a century. Later, Louis XIV had it removed and installed at the Palace of Versailles and then Napoleon Bonaparte acquired the Mona Lisa at the turn of the 19th century for his boudoir. Housed in La Louvre museum in Paris, she is now considered a priceless work of art and cannot be bought or sold as part of the French heritage law. But her rich historical connections and legacy are not what made her famous. In fact, she achieved international stardom some four centuries after she was created, and that was because of a daring burglary in 1911. 

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall views Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa painting as she visits the Louvre Museum on May 28, 2013, in Paris France (Getty Images)

On August 20, 1911, a Sunday evening, a former La Louvre employee entered the Parisian museum and perpetrated what has been deemed the "art heist of the century." Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman, found himself hiding in a storage closet until the next morning thanks to the museum's lax security system. At around 7:15 am, when the Louvre was still closed and the foot traffic was light, he strode to the exhibit that displayed the Mona Lisa. Peruggia plucked her off the wall, took her out of its wooden canvas and plexiglass frame, and made his smooth getaway, with the painting tucked in the work apron that he had donned as to not arouse suspicion. For more than a day after the 'heist', the Louvre's staff had no clue that the painting had been stolen.

The museum's paintings were often taken down from their exhibit for cleaning or photography, so museum-goers didn't find it odd that the Mona Lisa was not in her designated place. Finally, on Tuesday, an amateur painter who had set up his easel near the da Vinci's famous portrait, and on seeing the blank space on the wall, asked the security guard to track her down. Only then, after the guard was unable to locate it in the museum, did they discover that the painting had not only been missing but was stolen. What ensued was a frantic search, with police leading investigations. That evening, a museum official announced that “The Mona Lisa is gone", ingraining the name in the memory of everyone that came across the news and making it an international sensation almost overnight. 

This reconstruction shows how Vincenzo Peruggia perpetrated what has been described as the greatest art theft of the 20th century. The former Louvre worker walked into the museum one day and, noticing the room containing the Mona Lisa had no guards or visitors, took the painting off its pegs, removed it from the frame, and walked out of the Louvre with it under his arm. (Roger-Viollet/Getty Images)

A slew of investigations was conducted as a large hoard of detectives took to dusting for fingerprints, questioning witnesses and searching cars and pedestrians at checkpoints for any possible leads. Every wall and surface of Paris was littered with wanted posters of the Mona Lisa, and when the temporarily closed La Louvre reopened a week later thousands of people came to gawk at the empty exhibit of the painting. The media had a field day with news, but despite all of the ruckus, the police had managed to gather some leads. In September 1911, the police arrested Guillaume Appollina, an avant-garde poet who had once said the Louvre should be burned down. He had previously been linked to the theft of two ancient statuettes from the museum.

Amid his interrogation, he implicated his close friend, the Spanish surrealist artist Pablo, 29, who had purchased the statuettes and used them as models in his work. Authorities extensively grilled the two art legends about the Mona Lisa's disappearance, but let them go due to lack of evidence. Days turned to months, and the painting was still missing, her whereabouts unknown. The New York Times wrote in an article at the time that “a great number of citizens have turned amateur Sherlock Holmeses, and continue to advance most extraordinary theories.” It wasn't long before bizarre theories began running wild. Some argued that JP Morgan, the American banker, had commissioned the heist to add the Mona Lisa to his private art collection, while others believed the theft was administered by the Germans to disgrace the French. 

Portrait of Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973) standing in his studio, 1920s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For more than two years everyone had believed that the 400-year-old masterpiece was lost forever, with no break in the case. Unbeknownst to the police, however, the Mona Lisa was in France from the very day that it was stolen, in a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Paris. Peruggia, 29, had stashed the painting in a wooden trunk in his home, and although he had been questioned about the theft, the police had never seen him as a serious suspect. He kept her hidden for two years while he waited for the frenzy surrounding her disappearance to die down. He is later believed to have said that he had fallen in love with her: “I fell a victim to her smile and feasted my eyes on my treasure every evening.” 

Two years later, in November 1913, Italian art dealer Alfredo Geri received a letter, signed by a man named Leonardo who said he had stolen the Mona Lisa and wanted to repatriate it to Italy. Geri conferred with Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, after which Geri invited Peruggia to the Italian city and agreed to look at the painting. The three men gathered in Peruggia's hotel room, a few days later, and to the Florentines' utter astonishment, Peruggia had produced the Mona Lisa. They immediately made arrangements for the painting to be sent to the Uffizi and agreed to pay Peruggia the sale price of 500,000 lire, but they had no actual intention of buying it. 

La Giaconda, or the Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo Da Vinci is returned to the School of Fine Arts, Paris. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Instead the art dealers got the portrait authenticated and reported the theft to the authorities. On December 11, 1913, over two years after stealing the Mona Lisa, Peruggia was arrested at his hotel. Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre in January 1914 after a brief tour around her home country of Italy. Meanwhile, Peruggia was charged with theft and put on trial in Italy. He claimed that he had acted out of his duty to avenge Italy because he was mistaken that the painting had been looted from his country during the Napoleonic era. However, with this defense, he had managed to win over people and many Italians admired him as a national hero. Despite the prosecution's evidence that he planned to sell the painting, he was ultimately sentenced to one year and 15 days in prison. He was released on appeal after serving seven months and later went on to fight in the Italian army during World War II. He returned to Paris and died in 1947.

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