The Day the Mona Lisa Disappeared
"La Joconde, c’est partie!” (The Mona Lisa is gone!) a guard at the Louvre gasped in horror on Tuesday, August 22, 1911.
Only four iron hooks framed by a ghostly rectangular shape hung in her place on the wall. The frame was found unmarred in a stairwell, as if the Florentine lady had emerged from it, in one chronicler’s words, “as effortlessly as a woman stepped out of her petticoats.” In an instant La Joconde became the most wanted woman in the world.
Leonardo’s portrait seemed to change from a missing masterpiece to a missing person, with the public responding as emotionally as they might to an abduction or kidnapping.” News of the sensational “l’affair de La Joconde,” traveling as fast as telegraph and cable could carry it, captivated millions, including many who had never heard of the portrait. Tabloids churned out reams of copy on the painting and its seductive model.
When the Louvre reopened on August 29, grieving Parisians lined up to view the blank space, which Le Figaro described as “an enormous, horrific, gaping void.” Visitors in record numbers left flowers and wept. Gone missing from the heart of Paris, the Mona Lisa popped up almost everywhere else. The portrait was seen crossing the border into Switzerland, hopping a freight train for Holland, boarding a steamer for South America. One witness placed it in a private gallery in St. Petersburg; another, in an apartment in the Bronx. Long before the technology existed for her image to go viral, Mona Lisa’s smile—like the Cheshire cat’s — seemed to materialize from thin air on kiosks, billboards, and magazine covers.
More than two years passed, and the hubbub died down. The Louvre removed the Mona Lisa from its catalogue and hung Raphael’s portrait of the courtly author Baldassare de Castiglione in her place.
Then, on November 29, 1913, Alfredo Geri, an antiques dealer with an upscale shop on Via Borgo Ognisanti in Florence, received a letter postmarked from Paris and signed “Leonardo.” The writer—and the unlikely perpetrator of “the heist of the century” — was an Italian named Vincenzo Peruggia, a 30-year-old amateur painter who had occasionally worked as a handyman at the Louvre. Deftly removing the painting from the frame he had helped construct, he hid it under his coat and carried it out of the building.
“The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession,” the note read. “It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an Italian. My dream is to give back this masterpiece to the land from which it came and to the country that inspired it.” Skeptical, Geri brought the letter to Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi, who advised him to request a chance to inspect the painting in Florence before making an offer.
When Peruggia brought the portrait, hidden under the fake bottom of a suitcase, to Florence, the Uffizi’s Poggi insisted on taking it back to his museum to compare it with other works by Leonardo. Peruggia, who expected the Italian government to pay him 500,000 lire—about $2.14 million today—for the “ great service rendered,” was arrested.
At the trial on June 4, 1914, the French, embarrassed by their poor security and botched investigation, did not press for harsh punishment. Peruggia's initial sentence of a year and fifteen days was reduced to seven months and nine days. With time served, Peruggia was released immediately—so penniless that he turned his pockets inside out as he left the courthouse. He died on October 8, 1925, his forty-fourth birthday, of a heart attack.
Even today theories persist that his theft was part of an elaborate scheme to pass off forged copies of the Mona Lisa as the stolen original. But in 1913 Italians were just happy to welcome their long-lost daughter home.
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and the New York Times best-selling LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. Related articles
Click below for a preview of a delightful documentary on the theft: