One of the most famous, if not the most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was stolen from the Louvre on August 21, 1911. You might not know it, but it was this event that helped the fame of the Mona Lisa reach ridiculous heights.
Before the Mona Lisa was stolen, the painting wasn’t that well known outside the art world. Da Vinci painted it in 1507 and it wasn’t until the 1860s that the art nerds of the world began to simply talk of its status as a masterpiece. And those talking about it we’re just a fraction of the French intelligentsia.
That all began to change on one fateful Monday morning. Three Italian handymen had spent the previous night hidden in an art supply closet. Once it was morning, before the museum opened, they emerged and took the painting, frame, and the glass case off the wall and onto the streets of Paris.
Nobody noticed the missing painting for 28 hours, according to Dorothy and Tom Hoobler in The Crimes of Paris. It wasn’t even the staff that noticed but a still-life painter who came into the Louvre to paint the gallery. Hoobler reported that the artist refused to work if the Mona Lisa wasn’t there.
But no one was alarmed. At that time, many of the Louvre’s paintings were being taken to the roof to be photographed as cameras of the time didn’t work very well indoors. The artist managed to convince a guard to ask the photographers how long they were going to be with the Mona Lisa and it was only then that they realised the painting wasn’t there, it had been stolen.
Once the theft was made public, newspapers all over Europe were talking about it. Who had taken the painting? Many thought it may have been a political act. Dorothy Hoobler writes, “In France, there was a great deal of concern that American millionaires were buying up the legacy of France — the best paintings.” American tycoon, J.P. Morgan, was a suspect at one point, and even Pablo Picasso, strangely enough.
This occurred just a few years before World War I so tensions between France and Germany were very high. Some people began pointing fingers at the Kaiser as being responsible for the theft.
The Louvre locked itself down for a week to ensure nothing else had been taken and to ramp up security. Once they reopened, the empty “mark of shame” where the Mona Lisa once hung became a tourist attraction in itself, with hordes of people, including notable figures like Franz Kafka, going to see it.
The actual thieves, the brothers Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti, and Vincenzo Perugia had made their escape to Italy. Perugia was the mastermind behind the plot as he was the handyman who actually installed the glass case surrounding the Mona Lisa.
But despite the Italian’s efforts, they couldn’t sell the painting. Everyone was talking about it and some papers were even offering rewards for its return, but Perugia couldn’t take it to them as he was worried about being arrested.
It took 28 months for Perugia to finally try and sell it. He took the painting to an art dealer in Florence, but the art dealer was naturally suspicious. The art dealer brought the head of an Italian art gallery to have a look at the painting and ensure its authenticity. They found a stamp on the back confirming it as the real Mona Lisa.
The art dealer told him to leave it with him and expect payment in a few days. Half an hour later, when Perugia went home, he found the police knocking on his door.
In court, Perugia claimed that he was sending the painting back to Italy because it was Napoleon that stole it from its home in Italy and he himself was a patriot wanting to bring the Mona Lisa home. Perugia plead guilty to the theft and served eight months in prison.
It was all a big scandal but by then the First World War was about to start so headlines about the theft were quickly replaced with those about war.