"La Jaconde C'est parti!"
On August 21, 1911, a thief stole Leonardo DaVinci's MonaLisa from the Louvre in Paris. This was the first major art theft of the 20th century and it put the proud city of Paris, a world cultural center, into shock. The culprit, later identified as Vincenzo Peruggia, managed to enter the premise and steal the masterpiece from under the noses of both the museum security guards and staff. Peruggia possessed the painting for over two years, then transported it to Florence, Italy, where he was arrested after a feeble attempt at selling the picture to the Uffizi. Peruggia boldly stated at his trial that he was an Italian patriot and only stole the painting so that he could return it to Italy where it rightfully belonged (He mistakenly believed that the painting was taken out of Italy as war loot by Napoleon Bonaparte). Peruggia became a national hero in Italy and received hundreds of letters, gifts, cigarettes, and food in his jail cell, which were sent by his admirers. He was compared to Don Quixote, the fighter of Gallic windmill giants. Thousands of Italians flocked to view the lady and her hypnotic smile, prior to her return to France. Later, a con man accused Peruggia in an interview of being involved in a much more complicated conspiracy, which included this master con man, a skilled forger, and several other accomplices. This expose' declared that far from patriotic fervor, the real motive beyond the theft was ill gotten monetary gain through the sale of duplicate Mona Lisas.
On Tuesday, August 22, 1911, a French artist named Louis Beroud set up his easel in the Salon Carre' at the Louvre to paint a picture of the room. Beroud frequently painted the rooms of the Louvre, a popular subject with foreign art collectors. On this day the MonaLisa, which hung between Titian's Allegory and Corregio's Betrothal of Saint Catherine, was missing. Annoyed at the paintings absence, he approached a guard named Poupardin and inquired about its return. Poupardin assumed that the painting had been removed for photographing; it was very common for a painting to be moved here and there with very little controls in place. A short time later, after some badgering by Beroud, Poupardin went searching for the masterpiece. By 11.00 hrs., the sleepy guard that was entrusted by the populace of France to protect a national treasure, had realized that the painting was missing. Poupardin could only declare "C'est parti!".
The museum officials at this time period were not very concerned about theft, after all, who would dare steal from the Louvre? They were very concerned, however, about vandalism, after several incidents had occurred. One painting was slashed by a blade and another splashed by acid (and in 1914, two years after the theft, a feminist walked into London's National Gallery and hacked Valasquez's Venus With a Looking Glass with a hatchet to protest the imprisonment of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst). In October of 1910, the directors of the Louvre hired a company of carpenters and glaziers to build special frames with protective glass coverings for some of the more valuable works in the collection. The art community was outraged. Many people protested and one eccentric writer actually shaved his beard using his reflection in the glass of the Mona Lisa.
One of the skilled workers that was employed by the Paris firm of carpenters was Vincenzo Peruggia. Peruggia worked on the MonaLisa's wooden shadow box for three weeks. During this period of employment, Peruggia became familiar with the layout of the museum, the entrances and exits, and most importantly, the lazy work habits of the security guards.
Vincenzo Peruggia was born in Dumenza, Italy, on October 8, 1881. Peruggia earned his living since the age of twelve. He was a carpenter, house painter, and handyman. Like many of his countrymen with similar job skills, he moved to France to earn a living. In Paris, he lived at 5 Ruede l'Hospital-ST-Louis and paid 180 Francs rent for his apartment. Peruggia didn't feel welcome in Paris. He believed the French were rude to foreigners. They called him "mangeur de macaroni" (macaroni eater) and teased him about his accent. He also held a strong belief that many of the art treasures in the Louvre had been looted by Napoleon from Italy. Vincenzo was not an educated man, but he possessed a simple, hard-working class cunning and a knack for staying cool and calm in difficult moments.
Peruggia was arrested on two occasions in Paris. In June of 1908, he was brought into the police headquarters for an attempted robbery. He was released twenty four hours later. In 1909 he was arrested during a dispute with a prostitute, for illegal possession of a knife. He spent eight days in jail for the weapon. Peruggia was fingerprinted on both occasions.
The Louvre was always closed on Mondays for cleaning, repairs, and so on. The workers were busy everywhere on August 21, 1911, when Peruggia waltzed into the premise and reported directly to Salon Carre', where there were at least 10 men working nearby. He took the painting off of the wall and carried it to a service stairway. He took the painting out of its wooden frame and tossed both the frame and protective glass covering in the stairway. When he tried to open the exit door at the bottom of the stairs, he discovered it was locked. Peruggia removed the doorknob and put it in his pocket. The door would still not open. A plumber named Sauvet walked past and Peruggia stated like a Machiavellian fox:" Look! Some idiot stole the door knob! How can we get out now?". Sauvet opened the door with with his key and both Peruggia and the masterpiece were in the wind. The painting's theft went unnoticed for the next twenty seven hours. Later, upon being questioned by investigators, Sauvet stated that he could not describe the perp's face due to the poor lighting condition of the stairway.
Once outside, Peruggia tossed the doorknob over a fence and fled. A witness who observed this relayed the info to the Suerte' who retrieved the knob. This witness gave a good description of the art thief, a man with a medium height, strong-sturdy build, dressed in dark work clothes and a straw hat. This suspect was carrying a package and had black hair and a mustache "bigger then his face.". Through the interview with this witness, the police established a time of the theft, as well as the direction of flight that the suspect took.
In the police investigation that followed, a good thumbprint was lifted from the glass case that was left in the stairway. This print was lifted by the legendary French criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon. M. Bertillon was a pioneer in criminal identification: evidence, fingerprints, mug shots , to name a few. He maintained files and fingerprints on over 750,000 criminals. In that era, only the right hands of offenders were printed, and unfortunately for the art loving Parisians, the thumbprint that was lifted from the painting's glass case was from a left hand. All employees, past and present, were questioned and fingerprinted. Peruggia was interviewed on Nov. 26, 1911, by Inspector Brunet. He maintained his calm during the interview, convinced the detective that he was an innocent, hardworking man, and was cleared.
Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire were both brought in by police for questioning. They became suspects in the MonaLisa's theft after they were fingered for buying valuable statuettes that were stolen from a Louvre storeroom. Refer to the Pablo Picasso link on our Antiquities page for further info on this incident. Peruggia continued to work in Paris and maintained a cool composure. He built a trunk with a false bottom and hid the painting in it, wrapped in a red cloth. Lately there has been much discussion in the press about the deterioration of the painting in the year 2004. It is interesting to note that from Aug 11, 1911 until its recovery in Dec of 1913, the painting was totally unprotected from temperature, humidity, human breath, and tobacco smoke, to name a few. The carpenter transported the painting in this trunk by train to Florence. He arrived on Dec. 10, 1913 and stayed at the Hotel-Tripoli-Italia, on Via Panzoni; room 20 on the third floor.
Once settled in at the Florentine hotel, Peruggia contacted Alfredo Geri, the owner of La Galleria Borgognissanti. Geri received a letter from Peruggia that stated:" I am an Italian patriot that was seized by the desire to return to my Italy one of the numerous treasures that Napolean stole from her". The two met in Geri's office, along with the director of the Uffizi, Giovanni Poggi. Both Poggi and Geri understood immediately that the painting was the original, but pretended to have doubts. They convinced the art thief to let them have the painting over night to have expert testing conducted at the Uffizi. Peruggia agreed and the two departed with the painting and immediately notified the authorities. They claimed that Peruggia requested 500,000 Lira for the work (which Peruggia, who still wished to portray himself as the selfless patriot, denied in the trial that followed). Peruggia was arrested on Dec 11, 1913, by Francesco Tarantelli.
The Italian Government refused to extradite Peruggia and tried him in Italy. In court, Peruggia maintained a heroic bearing. He was sentenced to 1 year and 15 days for his crime. On appeal his sentence was reduced to 7 months and 9 days. He was released without even enough money to buy pasta for dinner.
The MonaLisa was displayed at the Uffizi, the Borghese Gallery, Villa Medici and the Brera Museum, and was viewed by tens of thousands of Italians. On Jan. 4, 1914, after a well protected train ride back to Paris, the masterpiece was re-hung in the Salon Carre'.
In Jan. 1914, Alfredo Geri was awarded a 25,000 Franc Reward and received the Rosette of France's Legion d'Honneur.
Peruggia returned to Dumenza a hero. He served honorably in the Italian army during WWI. In 1921, he married a nice Italian girl, and in spite of his alleged distaste of the French, moved his family to France, where he opened a hardware store outside of Paris. He led a quiet, prosperous life in France and died in 1927.*
In 1931, a reporter named Karl Decker revealed information that was passed onto him seventeen years earlier by a man named Marque' Eduardo de Valfierno. Decker stated that the interview took place in Jan/1914, but Valfierno swore him to secrecy until after his death. Valfierno was a con man who sold fake Spanish masters, such as Bartolome' Murillo, in Buenos Aires. His partner, Yves Chaudron, was a conservator and master forger.
Valfierno was a master at profiting on other larcenous minds such as his own. He would show a dishonest, wealthy tourist in Buenos Aires a painting in a museum, and convince him that he could steal it and deliver it to them in their native land. After delivering a copy of the painting, he would fake newspaper clippings that announced the theft. If the duped party ever questioned him about the same painting that still hung in the museum, he would reassure them that the museum was too ashamed to admit that a painting had been stolen, and was displaying a fake. Even if the unscrupulous customer did not believe this explanation, he could not report it to the police.
In 1910, Valfierno moved his operation to France. Yves Chaudron rented a studio in the bohemian artist district, Montmarte. Valfierno alleged that he convinced Peruggia to steal the MonaLisa, so they could sell it for a fortune. Chaudron did not really want to sell the painting, nor did he even care where it ended up. His plan was for Chaudron to make several copies and sell all of them as the original to foreign collectors. He counted on a huge amount of press on the theft, so his greedy buyers would be aware that the painting was at large and available for their greedy fingers to grab. If the MonaLisa was ever recovered and returned to the Louvre, he would assure his customers that the Louvre was displaying a fake because it could not admit losing a national treasure of France.
Over the years, the difficult question has arose from time to time: is the MonaLisa that hangs in the Louvre today authentic, or is it a fake. As you may remember, the officials from the Louvre who experienced the paintings theft and its return, were in the process of photographing all of the museum's important works. They claimed that the photographic documentation corresponded to the painting that was returned to them in 1914. This visual documentation of the original included the patterns of craquelure that matched perfectly with the painting that was returned to them from the Italian authorities.
So, was Peruggia an eccentric romantic, a selfless patriot, a noble idealist, or just another greedy thief? No matter how you view him, his daring crime marks the beginning of a turbulent century that is marked by huge art thefts, massive war looting, and the development of a ten billion dollar a year trade in illicit antiquities.
*While there is speculation over the life of Peruggia following his service to the Italian army in WWI, this is the most common accepted path. For more information, please check out Jay Robert Nash's "The Great Pictorial History of World Crime".