Who Stole the Mona Lisa?

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A Lineup of the Suspects in the Mona Lisa Art Heist

The art whodunit that made the entire 20th century gasp! On August 21, 1911, the famed Mona Lisa was stolen off the walls of the Louvre. The scandal was called “the most colossal theft of modern times.”

Newspapers worldwide covered the story. Sixty police agents were put on the case. To no avail. Two years of investigation proved fruitless. Plenty of suspects and leads, but no Mona. Can you guess who stole her?

LEONARDO DA VINCI STOLE THE MONA LISA

Nah, Leonardo is the Renaissance artist who painted this most famous portrait. Art historians dither on the specifics but roughly agree the Mona Lisa was created between 1503-1516, with years of time in between during which the artist abandoned work on the painting.

It’s believed that Leonardo brought the portrait with him when he was invited to France by King Francis in 1516. And, he continued to hone his most famous muse there.

KING FRANCIS I STOLE THE MONA LISA

Nope, but Francis did invite the maker of La Joconde to visit his court and country in 1516. After Leonardo’s death in May 1519, the painting was bought by Francis for 4,000 écus.

The Mona Lisa was hung in all the right places: the Château de Fontainebleau, Versailles and even in the bedroom of Napolean Bonaparte after the French Revolution. But it ended up in the Louvre, from which it was stolen in 1911.

However, Francis’ acquisition of the painting does explain how the Italian Renaissance masterpiece ended up on French soil, to the consternation of some die-hard Italian nationalists…hint hint.

LOUIS BÉROUD STOLE THE MONA LISA

Not him either. Someone absconded with Mona on Aug. 21, but the theft wasn’t discovered until the next morning. Louis Béroud is actually the one who raised the hue and cry.

He strolled into the gallery of the Louvre and was met, not with that enigmatic smile, but four iron pegs marking where the Mona Lisa should have hung. He alerted guards who initially assumed the painting had been taken off exhibit to be photographed for promotional purposes by the staff.

Béroud followed up hours later. That’s when security discovered the painting was indeed missing. The Louvre closed for a week to investigate.

Louise Beroud's Mona Lisa

Béroud’s persistence might have been on-point citizenship at work, but he also had a vested interest in the return of the Mona Lisa.

He was painting his own version of the Leonardo masterpiece in situ on the walls of the Louvre’s salon and was likely looking to get his model restored to her rightful place so he could finish his homage.

GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE STOLE THE MONA LISA

Not guilty. But on Sept. 7, 1911, writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of the theft of the Mona Lisa and several other Egyptian figurines from the Louvre.

At one time, Apollinaire called for the Louvre to be burned down, which probably didn’t endear him to the authorities. He was released a week later. But during his time in the slammer, he managed to implicate his friend Pablo Picasso in the theft. Thanks, buddy.

Apollinaire was exonerated of all charges but it does turn out that one of his former assistants, Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret, was responsible for the theft of the Egyptian statuettes that had gone missing from the Louvre.

PABLO PICASSO STOLE THE MONA LISA

Not really, but he was in the right place — Paris — at the right time — 1911. Turns out Picasso was close friends with one of the suspects of the heist, Guillaume Apollinaire (said party mentioned above), who blubbered about Picasso to the police while being interrogated.

Police followed up and brought young Pablo in for questioning. No surprise, given that Picasso had been involved in buying stolen art from the Louvre before! Naughty artist!

But innocence will out and two years after the theft, when the true thief was caught red-handed, Picasso was fully exonerated. Whew! Close call, Pablo!

VINCENZO PERUGGIA STOLE THE MONA LISA

J’accuse! Correctly! Two years after the notorious gank of the Mona Lisa, the thief was caught trying to sell the priceless painting to an art dealer in Florence, Italy. Peruggia was a handyman and a former employee of the Louvre.

The heist involved nothing more than him hiding in a broom closet until the museum closed. Then he sidled up to the legendary portrait, pulled it off the wall, slipped it under his coat and walked out the door.

But did he act alone?

EDUARDO DE VALFIERNO STOLE THE MONA LISA…AND YVES CHAUDRON FORGED SIX COUNTERFEITS OF HER

Maybe. History paints Vincenzo Peruggia as an Italian nationalist whose most ardent wish was to see the artistic legacy of his Renaissance forefathers returned to native soil. The reality might be a tinge more corrupt.

Peruggia is rumored to have been in the employ of Argentine hustler Eduardo de Valfierno, who was working with forger Yves Chaudron (whose identity has never been confirmed) on a scheme to create and sell six counterfeit copies of the Mona Lisa while the real version conveniently went missing.

This account comes from an uncorroborated article published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1932 by journalist Karl Decker. Decker was known for his embellished style of reporting, so his credibility has been called into question. He claimed this story came to him from Valfierno on his deathbed.

Questions still stand around the existence of Valfierno and Chaudron, who have never been identified, and the fact that the alleged six fake paintings have never surfaced.

But how did Peruggia get caught?

ALFREDO GERI AND GIOVANNI POGGI STOLE THE MONA LISA

Actually, no, these two are the heroes of this tale. In December 1913, after two years of keeping the painting hidden in the false bottom of a trunk in his Paris flat, Peruggia was skittish and looking to offload Mona once and for all.

He’d never heard from Valfierno after their initial agreement and decided to take matters into his own hands. He smuggled the painting to Italy. Then he attempted to sell the work to art dealer Alfredo Geri and Uffizi Gallery director Giovanni Poggi in Florence. Suspicious of the deal, one of the museum officials called the authorities.

The Mona Lisa on display in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, 1913. Museum director Giovanni Poggi (right) inspects the painting.
The Mona Lisa on display in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, 1913. Museum director Giovanni Poggi (right) inspects the painting.

One irony about this art heist is that Peruggia was initially a suspect. The French police tossed his place looking for evidence in 1911 but never found a clue. Peruggia’d had brushes with crime before. Once for trying to rob a prostitute and another incident involving possession of a gun.

His criminal past didn’t beef up his sentence for the Mona Lisa heist, however, which amounted to a slap on the wrist. He was jailed for six months and then pretty much hailed as a hero in Italy for trying to bring Mona back to the motherland.

It’s also interesting to note that the Mona Lisa wasn’t really known worldwide until after the theft. It wasn’t until all the news coverage that went along with the heist that the status of the Mona Lisa started to reach legendary proportions.

Want more Mona?

Color your own Mona Lisa.Paint your own version of Mona Lisa, American Gothic, The Birth of Venus and other top masterpieces with Master Prints as your inspiration and guide. You’ve got the strokes of the masters to follow along with, so you can paint your masterpiece your way.

Frame your finished work. Hang it in a place of pride or give it as a gift to someone who is going to love you forever. Enjoy!

Courtney

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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