The Day the Mona Lisa Was Stolen

The famous Leonardo Da Vinci painting The Mona Lisa seen on display in the Louvre in Paris, France.

Pascal Le Segretain/Staff / Getty Images

On August 21, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, today one of the most famous paintings in the world, was stolen right off the wall of the Louvre. It was such an inconceivable crime, that the Mona Lisa wasn't even noticed missing until the following day.

Who would steal such a famous painting? Why did they do it? Was the Mona Lisa lost forever?

The Discovery

Everyone had been talking about the glass panes that museum officials at the Louvre had put in front of several of their most important paintings in October 1910. Museum officials said it was to help protect the paintings, especially because of recent acts of vandalism. The public and the press thought the glass was too reflective and detracted from the images. Some Parisians quipped that perhaps art such as the real Mona Lisa had been stolen, and copies were being passed off to the public. Museum director Théophile Homolle retorted "you might as well pretend that one could steal the towers of the cathedral of Notre Dame."

Louis Béroud, a painter, decided to join in the debate by painting a young French girl fixing her hair in the reflection from the pane of glass in front of the Mona Lisa.

On Tuesday, August 22, 1911, Béroud walked into the Louvre and went to the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa had been on display for five years. But on the wall where the Mona Lisa used to hang, in between Correggio's Mystical Marriage and Titian's Allegory of Alfonso d'Avalos, sat only four iron pegs.

Béroud contacted the section head of the guards, who thought the painting must be at the photographers'. A few hours later, Béroud checked back with the section head. It was then discovered the Mona Lisa was not with the photographers. The section chief and other guards did a quick search of the museum—no Mona Lisa.

Since museum director Homolle was on vacation, the curator of Egyptian antiquities was contacted. He, in turn, called the Paris police. About 60 investigators were sent over to the Louvre shortly after noon. They closed the museum and slowly let out the visitors. They then continued the search.

It was finally determined that it was true—the Mona Lisa had been stolen.

The Louvre was closed for an entire week to aid the investigation. When it was reopened, a line of people had come to solemnly stare at the empty space on the wall, where the Mona Lisa had once hung. An anonymous visitor left a bouquet of flowers. Museum director Homolle lost his job.

Why Did No One Notice?

Later reports would show that the painting was stolen for 26 hours before anyone noticed it. 

In retrospect, that's not all that shocking. The Louvre Museum is the largest in the world, covering an area of about 15 acres. Security was weak; reports are that there were only about 150 guards, and incidents of art stolen or damaged inside the museum had happened a few years earlier.

In addition, at the time, the Mona Lisa was not all that famous. Although known to be an early 16th-century work of Leonardo da Vinci, only a small but growing circle of art critics and aficionados were aware that it was special. The theft of the painting would change that forever. 

The Clues

Unfortunately, there wasn't much evidence to go on. The most important discovery was found on the first day of the investigation. About an hour after the 60 investigators began searching the Louvre, they found the controversial plate of glass and Mona Lisa's frame lying in a staircase. The frame, an ancient one donated by Countess de Béarn two years prior, had not been damaged. Investigators and others speculated that the thief grabbed the painting off the wall, entered the stairwell, removed the painting from its frame, then somehow left the museum unnoticed. But when did all this take place?

Investigators began to interview guards and workers to determine when the Mona Lisa went missing. One worker remembered having seen the painting around 7 o'clock on Monday morning (a day before it was discovered missing) but noticed it gone when he walked by the Salon Carré an hour later. He had assumed a museum official had moved it.

Further research discovered that the usual guard in the Salon Carré was home (one of his children had the measles) and his replacement admitted leaving his post for a few minutes around 8 o'clock to smoke a cigarette. All of this evidence pointed to the theft occurring somewhere between 7:00 and 8:30 on Monday morning.

But on Mondays, the Louvre was closed for cleaning. So, was this an inside job? Approximately 800 people had access to the Salon Carré on Monday morning. Wandering throughout the museum were museum officials, guards, workmen, cleaners, and photographers. Interviews with these people brought out very little. One person thought they had seen a stranger hanging out, but he was unable to match the stranger's face with photos at the police station.

The investigators brought in Alphonse Bertillon, a famous fingerprint expert. He found a thumbprint on the Mona Lisa's frame, but he was unable to match it with any in his files.

There was a scaffold against one side of the museum that was there to aid the installation of an elevator. This could have given access to a would-be thief to the museum.

Besides believing that the thief had to have at least some internal knowledge of the museum, there really wasn't much evidence. So, whodunnit?

Who Stole the Painting?

Rumors and theories about the identity and motive of the thief spread like wildfire. Some Frenchmen blamed the Germans, believing the theft a ploy to demoralize their country. Some Germans thought it was a ploy by the French to distract from international concerns. The prefect of the police had several theories, quoted in a 1912 story in The New York Times:

The thieves—I am inclined to think there were more than one—got away with it all right. So far nothing is known of their identity and whereabouts. I am certain that the motive was not a political one, but maybe it is a case of 'sabotage,' brought about by discontent among the Louvre employees. Possibly, on the other hand, the theft was committed by a maniac. A more serious possibility is that La Gioconda was stolen by someone who plans to make a monetary profit by blackmailing the Government.

Other theories blamed a Louvre worker, who stole the painting in order to reveal how bad the Louvre was protecting these treasures. Still, others believed the whole thing was done as a joke and that the painting would be returned anonymously shortly.

On September 7, 1911, 17 days after the theft, the French arrested the French poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire. Five days later, he was released. Though Apollinaire was a friend of Géry Piéret, someone who had been stealing artifacts right under the guards' noses for quite a while, there was no evidence that Apollinaire had any knowledge or had in any way participated in the theft of the Mona Lisa.

Though the public was restless and the investigators were searching, the Mona Lisa did not show up. Weeks went by. Months went by. Then years went by. The latest theory was that the painting had been accidentally destroyed during a cleaning and the museum was using the idea of a theft as a cover-up.

Two years went by with no word about the real Mona Lisa. And then the thief made contact.

The Robber Makes Contact

In the fall of 1913, two years after the Mona Lisa was stolen, a well-known antique dealer in Florence, Italy named Alfredo Geri innocently placed an ad in several Italian newspapers which stated that he was "a buyer at good prices of art objects of every sort." 

Soon after he placed the ad, Geri received a letter dated Nov. 29, 1913, that stated the writer was in possession of the stolen Mona Lisa. The letter had a post office box in Paris as a return address and had been signed only as "Leonardo."

Though Geri thought he was dealing with someone who had a copy rather than the real Mona Lisa, he contacted Commendatore Giovanni Poggi, museum director of Florence's Uffizi museum. Together, they decided that Geri would write a letter in return saying that he would need to see the painting before he could offer a price.

Another letter came almost immediately asking Geri to go to Paris to see the painting. Geri replied, stating that he could not go to Paris, but, instead, arranged for "Leonardo" to meet him in Milan on Dec. 22.

On December 10, 1913, an Italian man with a mustache appeared at Geri's sales office in Florence. After waiting for other customers to leave, the stranger told Geri that he was Leonardo Vincenzo and that he had the Mona Lisa back in his hotel room. Leonardo stated that he wanted a half million lire for the painting. Leonardo explained that he had stolen the painting in order to restore to Italy what had been stolen from it by Napoleon. Thus, Leonardo made the stipulation that the Mona Lisa was to be hung at the Uffizi and never given back to France.

With some quick, clear thinking, Geri agreed to the price but said the director of the Uffizi would want to see the painting before agreeing to hang it in the museum. Leonardo then suggested they meet in his hotel room the next day.

Upon his leaving, Geri contacted the police and the Uffizi.

The Return of the Painting

The following day, Geri and the Uffizi museum director Poggi appeared at Leonardo's hotel room. Leonardo pulled out a wooden trunk, which contained a pair of underwear, some old shoes, and a shirt. Beneath that Leonardo removed a false bottom—and there lay the Mona Lisa.

Geri and the museum director noticed and recognized the Louvre seal on the back of the painting. This was obviously the real Mona Lisa. The museum director said that he would need to compare the painting with other works by Leonardo da Vinci. They then walked out with the painting.

The Caper

Leonardo Vincenzo, whose real name was Vincenzo Peruggia, was arrested. Peruggia, born in Italy, had worked in Paris at the Louvre in 1908. He and two accomplices, the brothers Vincent and Michele Lancelotti, had entered the museum on Sunday and hid in a storeroom. The next day, while the museum was closed, the men dressed in workman's smocks came out of the storeroom, removed the protective glass and the frame. The Lancelotti brothers left by a staircase, dumping the frame and glass in the staircase, and, still known by many of the guards, Peruggia grabbed the Mona Lisa—painted on a white polar panel measuring 38x21 inches—and simply walked out of the museum's front door with the Mona Lisa under his painters smock.

Peruggia hadn't had a plan to dispose of the painting; his only goal, so he said, was to return it to Italy: but he may well have done it for the money. The hue and cry over the loss made the painting far more famous than before, and it was now far too dangerous to try to sell too quickly.

The public went wild at the news of finding the Mona Lisa. The painting was displayed at the Uffizi and throughout Italy before it was returned to France on Dec. 30, 1913.

After Effects

The men were tried and found guilty in a tribunal in 1914. Peruggia received a one year sentence, which was later reduced to seven months and he went home to Italy: there was a war in the works and a resolved art theft was no longer newsworthy.

The Mona Lisa became world-famous: her face is one of the most recognizable in the world today, printed on mugs, bags, and t-shirts around the globe.

Sources and Further Reading