Monday, August 22, 2011

The lady disappeared

One hundred years and two days ago to be exact the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in what became at the time the crime of the century. Years later it was discovered that between 1911 and 1913, the most famous painting in the world, the legendary work of Leonardo da Vinci, spent 28 months under a bed in a small room off the rue de l'Hôpital- St. Louis in Cité le Heron, a small cul de sac, in Paris near the Canal Saint-Martin

On the morning of August 22, 1911, the day of the Louvre's usual closing the painting was discovered missing. Only the nails that held the frame were on the wall. No alarm was raised since several of the Louvre's workers assumed the painting was being photographed in the basement, after all it was summer and not many Parisians were in Paris. But several hours later after the supervisor heard and a search was conducted the only clues were the Mona Lisa's gold frame found in the staircase leading to the courtyard of the Sphinx. Since it was in the middle of summer, the Under Secretary of State for Fine Arts was absent as well as the Director of National Museums. Only at 5:30 p.m. were the police, judges and prosecutor summoned.

Then began the interrogation of all staff, photographers, artists and workers present that day. A plumber said at 7:20 am he found that the lock on the door to the courtyard of the Sphinx had been unscrewed and a button was missing. A man in overalls sitting on the stairs had been asked to open this door. But this worker couldn't clearly remember who asked him or if he'd been carrying something. Had the thief acted alone? Another witness supplemented this testimony by saying he'd seen a man throw something into the courtyard which turned out to be the doorknob.
The Louvre closed for a week for investigations involving 60 police. The following Tuesday, August 29 the Louvre reopened. Crowds gathered to see the empty space with four nails.

Meanwhile heads rolled. The Director of National Museums, Théophile Homole, was laid off and the chief custodian of the museum dismissed. The press took hold of the event. Headlines appeared everyday. All leads were followed, rumors spread and the investigation stalled. Comedians, cartoonists and singers made the theft part of their act. Rewards were offered and the theft of the Mona Lisa which had plunged the country into 'national mourning' commanded 10 000 or 40 000 francs depending on the importance of intelligence. Friends of the Louvre offered 25 000 francs, an anonymous person offered 50 000 francs for the return in the Paris-Journal, But art specialists scoffed since it was clear that it was stolen for ransom because it was unsaleable. A politician of the day lamented that 'love was stolen.'

Then a serious lead appeared from a man who turned out to be a pathological liar and kleptomaniac. He boasted of stealing Phoenician statuettes from the Louvre and had sold them to artists. Some to Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet and others to Pablo Picasso. Picasso, who had bought two of these statues - without knowing the source, he said. Apollinaire was questioned and Picasso denied even knowing the poet. Apollinaire was crucified in the newspaper headlines and accused of also stealing the Mona Lisa. Picasso was let off the hook, later so was Apollinaire but it seems Picasso regretted this cowardice all his life. The trail that led up to Apollinaire and Picasso was a dead end.

In late 1913 a Florentine antique dealer named Alfredo Geri received a letter dated November 29, written in Italian by a Leonardo V. from General Delivery, in Paris. The mysterious correspondent wanted to sell the Mona Lisa adding it would be "recognizing that this treasure of art should be returned to her homeland." Intrigued, Geri contacted the director of the Uffizi Gallery, who advised him to follow up. Correspondence lead to a meeting in his gallery on December 10. The man came empty handed and asked for 500,000 francs in exchange. Geri complied and the next day Leonard V lead him to a modest hotel. In a wooden box, hidden under a false bottom for easy customs clearance, lay the famous picture. The two men carried the Mona Lisa to the Uffizi Gallery where she was authenticated on the basis of inscriptions on the back of the canvas and comparing those with cracks visible on the pictures in the Louvre. The next day, Leonardo V. who was actually a Vincenzo Perugia was arrested at his hotel as he prepared to return to France. When asked why, he readily told his story. But who was Vincenzo Perugia and how and why did he steal the legendary Mona Lisa?

He was born in Italy in the province of Como in 1881 of a mason. At twelve years old in Milan he learned the painting trade. He settled in Paris in 1908 and joined Gobi, a painting and glazing contractor on Rue Saint Honore. The firm worked at the Louvre and Perugia had participated in the crafting of the protective frame for the Mona Lisa. His fingerprints appeared on the glass removed from the Mona Lisa's frame. The police, however, hadn't followed the trail of workers employed by the Louvre or to a form with the name of Perugia and his fingerprints on file. He had been questioned even once by the police.
During the interrogation in Italy Perugia said he hated France. But loved Italy, it's art and he wanted to restore the Mona Lisa to his home country, believing it was stolen by Napoleon. In fact Leonardo da Vinci had brought the painting from Italy with him and it passed into the collection of Francis I (Leonardo's benefactor) upon Leonardo's death.
Perrugia described how he hid the Mona Lisa for 28 months where he lived in the working class passage near the Canal Saint Martin. He'd moved into the Italian community living there and rented a room on the first floor. Some of his cousins ​​lived there too. But it was two brothers, friends of his, that he confided in. He needed their help in building a protective box that he put under his bed to guard the painting from humidity. Later they were imprisoned.
But finally the big day arrived and the Mona Lisa returned to Paris on December 31, 1914. She was installed briefly at the Ecole des Beaux Art for experts to authenticate her. After she was authenticated the Ecole placed her under a red canopy in a room lined by Gobelins tapestries, and the public was invited for two days and to pay one franc. Thousands came and the money was sent to a charity in Italy. That Sunday the Mona Lisa was reinstated in the Louvre on January 4, 1914 where for the first afternoon 15,000 visitors were allowed to welcome her home.
A cartoonist proud to welcome home the Mona Lisa
As for Perugia, he spent seven months and eight days in jail. Given his patriotism and his psychiatric report the Italian courts were lenient and he served little more than a year in prison. He also received gifts and became a sort of national hero. High expectations greeted his prison release but the day before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo and all attention and a world war ensued. Perugia was lost in history.
Cara - Tuesday


  1. What an interesting column. Thank you.

  2. I loved this! Thank you Cara! A true Art History Mystery....fantastic!

  3. What a fabulous story Cara. Thanks. I enjoyed it immensely. I also love the mugshots. I love old mugshots.

  4. I love this story; it would make a good opera. I like your accompanying illustrations, too.

  5. Fascinating tale, Cara. Do I see a sequel, "What happened to Perugia? A chocoholic's fantasy."