Author: Andy Shield
On August 21, 1911, three gents dressed as workmen brazenly walked up to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, lifted her from the wall of the Louvre’s Salon Carré, and headed for a staircase. Here, they unshackled the artwork from its frame before Vincenzo Peruggia, the mastermind behind the plot, hid the panel up his smock and strolled out the front door.
The previous night, Peruggia and his accomplices had tucked themselves away in a storeroom - allowing them to explore the Louvre freely when the museum was closed. They’d planned their audacious theft carefully and were aware of the lax security.
Louis Béroud, a painter from Lyon, was among the first to notice a conspicuous gap on the wall. At the time, he was working on a scene depicting a French girl fixing her hair while using the Mona Lisa’s glass as a mirror.
Louis Béroud who notified the guards
Béroud notified the guards immediately - but nothing happened for several hours. There were murmurs that the 'Gioconda' could be with a photographer, or perhaps moved to another part of the museum.
26 hours later… the alarm was finally raised and a team of 60 investigators arrived to conduct a thorough search. It seems they looked everywhere - in dusty nooks, under carpets, and probably even behind the sofa - but to no avail - she was gone. Museum director, Jean Théophile Homolle, was sacked and visitors brought flowers.
Journalists were shocked that such a painting could be snatched so easily.
Daily Telegraph, 23rd of August, 1911
"One thought one had suddenly fallen into a trance this afternoon, or that one's informant had abruptly gone mad. ‘La Joconde' has disappeared. Its place in the Salon Carré of the Louvre is empty. No trace of it can be found. The whole museum has been ransacked, and Mona Lisa is not to be discovered in any corner.
The story sounds like a piece of necromancy. If any picture in the world is famous, it is Leonardo's Gioconda and it might rightly be called the most celebrated of all pictures.
It is generally supposed that the disappearance of the Gioconda is due to a practical joker; for it appears, indeed, impossible that any person can have intended to offer for sale a picture so universally known. The idea of a man walking into secondhand dealer's with Mona Lisa under his arm and remarking, “What will you give for this old picture?" defeats the imagination."
Despite the best efforts of the international art community, the painting remained hidden for two years - mainly in a secret compartment within a trunk designed by Peruggia. It’s said that he kept a postcard of the Mona Lisa on his mantlepiece as a private joke to himself.
In Autumn 1913, Peruggia looked to cash in on his famous heist by reaching out to Alfredo Geri, an Italian antique dealer. Geri had placed an ad in a newspaper informing readers that he was “a buyer at good prices of art objects of every sort” - but undoubtedly didn’t expect the kind of response he received.
Peruggia referred to himself as ‘Leonardo’ and explained that he was in possession of the prestigious artwork. His letter simply mentioned a post office box in Paris as the return address, which piqued the dealer’s interest.
The pair arranged to meet in a chilly Milan on the 22nd of December 1913. But two weeks prior, with Geri still considering how best to approach the situation, ‘Leonardo’ appeared at his office with the news that he’d been longing to hear. The Mona Lisa was back in his hotel room and it could be Geri’s for 500,000 lire.
It was at this point that Vincenzo Peruggia’s true intentions were revealed (if you believe them). Apparently, the heist was an act of goodwill to repatriate the enigmatic masterpiece following its theft by Napoleon. Peruggia was a patriot - Italian through and through - if you paid him a suitable ransom of course. He also stipulated that the painting should be hung in the Uffizi Gallery.
Geri arranged a second appointment and contacted the authorities. The following day, after the painting was revealed, it was handed over to the director of the Uffizi and Peruggia was finally arrested.
By early January, it was back at the Louvre.
“The picture was conveyed with the greatest precaution and a certain amount of ceremony from the École des Beaux-Arts, and, curiously enough, the smiling Mona Lisa was given the honour of returning by the private stairs to the Salon Carré.”
Relief at the Louvre
The unusual nature of Mona Lisa’s theft captured the public’s imagination and added a further level of intrigue to the piece. The smile, the sitter, the landscape, and the history have each been a topic of scholarly debate. Today she hangs behind three layers of bulletproof glass and remains one of the most discussed artworks on Earth.
Crowds at the Louvre
We have our own Mona Lisa here in the collection at Brave - a beautiful copy circa 1910 with fine details and exquisite brushwork. We purchased it from another dealer who understood that the copy had been commissioned by the Louvre and was once used as an official reproduction.
With this in mind, it’s fascinating to consider that it dates to around the same time as the infamous theft in 1911… Did it hang in the conspicuous gap? It’s a known fact that visitors were practically in mourning following its disappearance so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
Of course, all hand-me-down stories need to be taken with a pinch of salt - particularly as the provenance has been lost. But it’s certainly another interesting tale to add to this painting's rich and varied tapestry.