Surviving History


ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

THE MAN WHO STOLE THE MONA LISA: THE GREATEST ART THEFT IN HISTORY


He could scarcely believe the ease with which he carried out the crime.
Peruggia: Mona Lisa under his arm
On Monday 21 August, 1911, an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia walked out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa wrapped inside a white artist's smock. No one saw him steal the world’s most famous painting; no one heard him prise it from the wall.
Peruggia slipped out unnoticed and took the painting home to his apartment.
The greatest art theft of the 20th century could scarcely have been more simple. That morning, Vincenzo had slipped into the Louvre disguised as a museum employee. He had then made his way to the gallery in which Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting hung and lifted its box frame off the wall.
'Has anyone seen the Mona Lisa?'
None of the Louvre’s employees noticed that the painting was missing. Fully twelve hours after it was stolen, the duty caretaker reported to his boss that everything in the museum was in order.
No one even noticed the painting’s absence on the following morning. Paintings in the Louvre were often removed from the walls, because the museum's photographers were allowed to take them to their studios without having to sign them out.
The painter, Louis Béroud, arrived at the Louvre on Tuesday with the intention of sketching the Mona Lisa. He found just four iron hooks in the place where she normally hung. He presumed a photographer had taken her and joked with the guard: ‘When women are not with their lovers they are apt to be with their photographers.’
Happier days
When Mona Lisa was still missing at 11am, Béroud made enquiries to find out when she would be back. Only now, more than 24 hours after Peruggia removed the painting, did it dawn on museum staff that she’d been stolen.
No one had any idea as to the identity of the thief and nor could they fathom his motive: after all, it would be impossible to sell such a famous painting.
The Louvre closed for a week: when it reopened, there was a massive queue waiting to see the spot where the Mona Lisa used to hang.
Overnight, this moderately famous painting became an international icon. Postcards of La Gioconda’s face sold around the world. She was also featured on numerous cigarette cards.
Missing for two years
The French police made frantic efforts to trace the thief. Their only clue was a fingerprint on the glass of the discarded frame.
And this was the point at which the story acquired a strange twist that was to implicate Picasso in the theft.
Just a few months earlier, an eccentric bisexual Belgian named Honoré Gery had visited the offices of Le Journal and sold a journalist a little statuette that he’d stolen from the Louvre. He also bragged about having stolen other statuettes which he’d passed to an unnamed artist friend.
Now, in the aftermath of the Mona Lisa theft, the police were informed of Gery’s crime and began investigating.
Picasso in Paris: 'not me!'
News of the investigation came as a most unwelcome surprise to the young Pablo Picasso, then living in Paris. He was an acquaintance of Gery and was fully aware that he had stolen statuettes from the Louvre. Worse still, Picasso still had in his possession two of the statuettes that Gery had filched. He’d even used them as models for his famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Now, the net closed in on Picasso: he was arrested by the Paris police.
He remained cool under intense questioning. He denied any knowledge of Gery’s crimes and said (quite truthfully) he knew nothing of the Mona Lisa heist. He was eventually released and allowed to go free. The police never learned about the statuettes and their Louvre enquiries reached a dead end.
Peruggia: gave himself up
Two years were to pass before the Mona Lisa spectacularly resurfaced. In November, 1913 a Florentine antique dealer named Alfredo Geri received a cryptic letter which said: ‘The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an Italian.’ The letter was signed Leonardo.
Geri eventually got to meet ‘Leonardo’ and to see the Mona Lisa. Peruggia even allowed Geri have the painting authenticated. It was not long before news reached the press that the Mona Lisa had been found.
Geri: found the masterpiece
Perruggia was arrested, tried in Florence and found guilty: he told the court that his sole motive for stealing the picture was to return her to Italy. She was to be recompense for all the Italian paintings stolen by Napoleon.
The judge viewed Peruggia as a harmless fool. He received a sentence of one year and 15 days in jail. Shortly afterwards, his sentence was overturned. He was released and allowed to walk free.
The biggest winner in the whole sorry saga was the Louvre: it now found itself with a world famous painting to hang on its walls.
Peruggia’s extraordinary theft had turned the Mona Lisa from a moderately well-known painting into an internationally recognised masterpiece.
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'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating story!!! Can't wait to read this to my kids tomorrow.

    ReplyDelete