10 April 2012

Mona Lisa - stolen in 1911 and retrieved

Mona Lisa was always a special painting. Leonardo da Vinci began the painting in Italy in 1503, but then when he moved to France in 1516 for the last few years of his life, he sold it to his host, King Francois I. The king placed his treasure in the Louvre where it safely rested and enthralled the crowds for centuries. Note the date when the picture went to France - 1516; it will be important!

Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, between 1503-16

Then in August 1911, a crisis occurred – France’s beloved Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. Guards who noticed that the painting was missing assumed it had been removed to be photographed. Once museum officials realised the truth, the Louvre was shut down. Dozens of police arrived to question the staff, re-enact the crime and dust for finger prints. All employees, past and present, were interrogated and finger printed, including the eventual thief. But they were all cleared.

The French border was sealed, and departing ships and trains searched. By the time the museum re-opened nine days later, the theft was front-page news around the world. What could have happened? Jennifer Rosenberg noted that some Frenchmen blamed the Germans, believing the theft a ploy to demoralise their country. And some Germans thought it was a ploy by the French to distract French citizens from international concerns.

Richard Lacayo noted that the newspaper Paris-Journal was offering a reward for information about the crime. A petty thief said he had previously worked as secretary for Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet who was Picasso's constant supporter in the public skirmishes over modern art in the French press. Before long, the thief had implicated Apollinaire. When police arrested Apollinaire, he admitted under pressure that the thief had sold the pilfered works to none other than Picasso. Thinking they had found their way into a crime ring that might be behind the Mona Lisa case, the police then questioned Picasso. Picasso was Spanish citizen and any serious criminal problem could get him deported. And he had reason to be worried, since he almost certainly had dealt with the thief in the past. However there was no evidence against Picasso.

Presumbly it was thought that that modernist enemies of traditional art might have taken the Mona Lisa. But why - to destroy it? to make an art historical-political point?

Vincenzo Peruggia, police documentation, 1913

Two years went by before the real thief was discovered and then only because the man acknowledged his part in the theft. An Italian petty criminal called Vincenzo Peruggia had moved to Paris in 1908 and had worked at the Louvre for a time. He was no criminal master mind but apparently he walked with the painting under a smock and quietly took it to his lodgings in Paris.

Peruggia travelled to Florence by train the following month, taking the Mona Lisa in a trunk with a false bottom. Eventually in Florence he took the painting to an art gallery where the owner, Alfredo Geri, persuaded him to leave it for expert examination. In 1913, the Italian police could finally arrest the thief.

According to Richard Cavendish, Peruggia apparently believed that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon. The thief never planned to damage or destroy the painting; he believed that he was only doing his patriotic duty, by returning the painting to its true home in Italy. In fact Peruggia's patriotic rationale really DID make him a hero in the Italian press. And many Italians really did joyously welcome the masterpiece home at the Uffizi and the Borghese Galleries, Villa Medici, Farnese Palace and the Brera Museum. But we need to remember that Mona Lisa had never been part of Napoleon’s art collection, so I wonder why Peruggia’s gaol sentence was relatively minor.

modern security for Mona Lisa, the Louvre

After the painting’s triumphal tour of Italy, the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre and has mostly remained there, in its rightful spot, ever since. Security these days is, needless to say, rather tight.

p.s 100 years later the Mona Lisa is again making the news. See Art Blog By Bob for the arguments about why you shouldn’t believe the “Earlier Mona Lisa” hype.


Melbourne Australia Photos said...

It is a famous painting and has a chequered history, Hels. When I first saw it I couldn't believe how small it was - somehow I had been expecting a really grand portrait. The story of the theft is priceless and would make a really good movie! :-)

However, it is a gorgeous painting and shows off wonderfully Leonardo's immense talents.

Hels said...


it is TINY, nod. I am short, so I had to push myself to the front of the crowd, just to see the masterpiece.

The story of the theft is indeed extraordinary. Yet humiliating thefts from important galleries went on, throughout the 20th century. Did galleries not learn?

Hermes said...


The copy is interesting as it is clearer and shows how she probably looked.

Great post Hels

Hels said...


what a mammoth restoration project - two years on a very small painting! But it was worth every penny because it revealed details in the landscape that noone had seen for hundreds of years.

artlover15 said...

Apollinaire and Picasso involved in a crime ring? It sounds like a bit of gossip that you might read in a tabloid newspaper.

Unknown said...

Read a book on this once and it is quite an amazing story! I was always amazed at the worldwide following that the theft had even 100 years ago, when communication was much slower. Glad to have seen your post, and have enjoyed reading your blog so far...

Unknown said...

Hi Hels! This case is fascinating, and as many have argued - from our compatriot Robert Hughes to Professor Noah Charney - the theft catapulted Leonardo and the painting into the public eye for good.

Charney, an art crime specialist has recently published a book on the "thefts of the Mona Lisa" which both myself and Alberti's Window have reviewed recently.

The Prado variant is another interesting case!

Kind Regards

Hels said...


thank you. I will read your review and the Alberti's Window review asap, and then I can add a reference to Charney.

Links to other art history posts are the best part of blogging.

andrew1860 said...

Hi Helen, great post. I have always love the Mona Lisa. I'm tall but I still have to push my way to the Mona Lisa. I have seen her over 20 times. I don't know if you know but the Mona Lisa came to America in the early 1960's. Also a newly rediscovered painting by Leonardo Salvator Mundi has come to light.

Don001 said...

An interesting aside to The Mona Lisa which has always intrigued me. The British trained - and very highly qualified - Art Conservator at Te Papa (The National Museum of New Zealand) told me a few years back that no professional museum would ever have such an old painting continuously on display over such a long period of time - any painting has a display "life" which is rigorously recorded and adhered to. She personally believed that The Mona Lisa on display might not always be the original. Hard to believe but she was deadly serious as she had seen the cumulative damage to paintings after long periods on display.

Hels said...


I am no expert in the area of art thefts myself, and I cannot find mention of Apollinaire and Picasso being involved in any case at all, except for the Mona Lisa. Thus I agree.. it sounds far fetched.

Perhaps they were such vigorous supporters of modern art, which conservative critics found repugnant, that Apollinaire and Picasso became likely candidates as thieves.

Hels said...


There was no internet of course, but there were great telegraph services. So newspapers, galleries and art lovers around the world were quickly horrified at the theft.

It says a great deal about the iconic status of Mona Lisa, however. If any other painting had been stolen, people would have tut tutted, but not been heartbroken.

Hels said...


no, I had no idea that the Mona Lisa, once rediscovered after the theft, had ever left the Louvre again. If you can find a reliable reference for me (which year? which US galleries did it visit?), I would be grateful.

Hels said...


Your curator colleague makes perfect sense in that almost any painting has a pre-determined display life; we can well imagine the cumulative damage to paintings after longgg periods on display.

The problem with a national icon is that the gallery would be torn apart if Mona Lisa wasn't on display almost all of the time. I suspect the 8 million visitors to the Louvre each year go to see Mona Lisa first, then all the other paintings after.

ChrisJ said...

You're probably right that the gallery would be torn apart if the Mona Lisa weren't on display; but I wonder how many would know if what they were looking at was an excellent copy; plus its size and the security in place would make it even harder to tell. Still it would have to be a very deep dark secret, and secrets have a way of leaking out.

Hels said...


a fake Mona Lisa, just for the time that the real Mona Lisa isn't on display, is a very subversive idea.

On one hand, most of the 8 million visitors each year wouldn't know and would go home duped but perfectly happy. On the other hand, the Louvre would be intentionally falsifying art history for however many months or years the real Mona Lisa was in storage.

On the third hand, the Louvre could place a note next to the stand-in Mona Lisa to honestly inform visitors that the painting was a fake. Let us get our mind around that sentence :)

Glamour Drops said...

And all of this only adds to its appeal, no doubt. The first time I saw it, with only minor security around it, I thought how beautiful it was. But the second time, it was so surrounded that it was impossible to get any sense of the atmosphere of this most intriguing of pieces. So sad that so many people can only ever now see it this way.

Hels said...

Glamour Drops

I cannot see any way around this problem :(

Unknown said...

What a hoot! I love how the thief was hailed a hero and the painting actually made a tour of Italy before being returned to France.

Unknown said...

Hi Hels - the Mona Lisa's travels are nicely summarised in this post at ArtInfo ; basically it has been to the US and Japan in the 60s and 70s respectively. The city of Florence is quite keen to have it back as part of Leonardo specific celebration, though it seems increasingly unlikely. I imagine it would require some major mutual loaning to be done for it to be achieved - but I wouldn't hold my breath.

I have heard from various (undocumented) sources the Mona Lisa on display is rotated with another very good early 16th century copy that is known to exist; but that could just be just a rumour. I've mentioned this prospect to friends who've visited the painting and it seemed to make them quite upset. I have no fervent desire to see it myself, especially since C2RMF put their ultra high resolution image of it online.

If any of your readers are curious to see it - please follow visit here: link

Kind regards

Hels said...


That is constantly happening to me... history being re-written, according to which side you are reading. Nothing is fixed.

Napoleon is viewed by French historians as their winningest general EVER, albeit a flawed human being. British historians see him as the cause of the slaughter of 2.5-3.5 million young soldiers across Europe.

Hels said...


Don said the same thing about being rotated with a good copy. I wonder if there is any way of discovering the truth here. It seems not.

Thanks for the reference... I will have a look straight away.

diane b said...

Thanks for the interesting details of the theft. I also was amazed at how small it was when we saw it.

Hels said...


since it is such a great story, I am not sure why we all hadn't read about the events before now. Perhaps the Titanic, right at the same time, dominated the news then and for 100 years since.

Hels said...

I have added a reference to Art Blog by Bob. He described The Mona Lisa Foundation which launched an international media assault asserting that the painting formerly known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa is actually also by Leonardo da Vinci and is the long-presumed-lost “Earlier Mona Lisa” alluded to in texts by Leonardo’s contemporaries. Bob disagreed.

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Unknown said...

What happened to her smirk? and those eyes, those eye, those eyes disguise the lies.

Hels said...

Adrina and Mikki

Thanks for your comments.

I like to think of the lady having a gentle, perhaps enigmatic smile rather than a smirk :) Leonardo da Vinci used many blurred layers of glaze and pigments around the mouth that gave the Mona Lisa her faint, smoky smile.