The Mona Lisa Theft in 1911 that Propelled the Painting to Fame

The Mona Lisa’s worldwide popularity is partly attributed to its theft in 1911, orchestrated by the Italian handyman Vincenzo Peruggia. Peruggia and two accomplices hid in a vault within the Louvre museum, patiently waited until the museum closed for the day, and disappeared with the painting.

The thieves swiftly departed from Paris by boarding a train. As the heist garnered increasing media attention, both domestically and internationally, Peruggia retained possession of the artwork, at one instance hiding it beneath the floorboards of his residence in Paris.

Just over two years after the theft, Peruggia attempted to sell the artwork to a dealer in Florence. He hoped that he could return a lost treasure to Italy by doing so. The intended sale was unsuccessful when the dealer contacted the director of the Uffizi Galleries, who acquired the artwork and alerted the police. Peruggia served a 7-months of a 15-month prison sentence, and the artwork was returned to the Louvre.

At that time, the Mona Lisa was not highly regarded and was considered a lesser creation by Leonardo da Vinci, but the theft was a catalyst that propelled the painting to fame.  The Mona Lisa is now considered the most famous painting in the world.

How did Mona Lisa Get Stolen?

On August 21, 1911, an individual disguised in a white labourer’s smock invaded the Louvre, which was closed because it was a Monday. Within the Salon Carré, a gallery within the Louvre that houses valuable artworks from the Renaissance, he carefully took hold of a miniature wooden painting, detached its protective glass casing, and lifted it away from the wall. Concealing the artwork beneath his garment, he ventured into the streets of Paris with his stolen property. It took twenty-six hours for someone to realise that the Mona Lisa was missing.

Illustrations reimagining of the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa.
Illustrations reimagining of the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa.

Leonardo Da Vinci completed his masterwork in 1507. However, in the 19th century, critics began to recognise the artwork as the epitome of Renaissance Florentine painting. The Mona Lisa did not possess immediate recognition in 1911. The Washington Post erroneously published an image of the Monna Vanna, a nude charcoal painting believed to be a preliminary work by da Vinci for the Mona Lisa, when reporting on the theft and estimating the painting’s worth at $5 million. The theft altered the perception of the Mona Lisa in the global community.

The burglary was uncovered when an affluent museum benefactor and non-professional artist arrived at the Salon Carré to see “La Jaconde,” as the French refers to the Mona Lisa. However, he discovered an empty expanse of wall. Since the Louvre frequently took art pieces down for photos, a guard was unaware that the piece was missing. After a few hours, he notified the staff. Later that evening, law enforcement authorities officially declared the happening of the heist. Georges Benedite, the curator of the Louvre, stated to the press that only an individual who enjoys playing practical jokes would dare to steal a highly valued painting, as it would be exceedingly challenging to sell it illegally.

The century-old crime scene images depict a narrow space between the Titians and Correggios, resembling a missing tooth, rather than the prominently vacant glass case or a wide naked wall that one would expect to see today. It is widely recognized that many individuals flocked to observe this particular location, this opening, this rumored void – a greater number of people, as frequently emphasized, compared to the previous attendance when the picture was present. However, there was a discernible object or scene, albeit not completely contentless. The picture is represented by four iron hooks and a faint dusty outline, creating a ghostly impression.

The empty space on the Louvre wall where the Mona Lisa once hung, before being stolen by Peruggia.
The empty space on the Louvre wall where the Mona Lisa once hung, before being stolen by Peruggia.

The news of the disappearance sparked a widespread public uproar in France. The Parisian journal L’Illustration pondered, “What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?” The New York Times said, “60 Detectives Seek Stolen’ Mona Lisa,’ French Public Indignant.” Investigators flooded the Louvre to collect fingerprints and interrogate witnesses. The commanding officer sounded assured. “The theft took place on closing day, we know who came in and out, and this investigation will only take two to three days.”

A New York Times headline from August 24, 1911, reported the investigation into the disappearance of the "Mona Lisa."
A New York Times headline from August 24, 1911, reported the investigation into the disappearance of the “Mona Lisa.”

At checkpoints, authorities conducted searches of cars, steamboat passengers, and pedestrians. The police distributed “wanted posters” with the enigmatic half-smile of the Mona Lisa. The gendarmes believed that the robber wanted a ransom within 48 hours. However, a period of two days elapsed without anyone stepping forward.

Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, was apprehended by the authorities on September 7 due to suspicions of his complicity in the theft of the Mona Lisa and other Egyptian statuettes from the Louvre. Géry Pieret, the poet’s secretary and a minor art thief, approached the Paris-Journal newspaper following a dispute with Apollinaire, asserting that he knew about the Mona Lisa. The police subjected Apollinaire to intense interrogation. Eventually, they set him free, but only after he divulged the identity of his intimate associate, the renowned artist Pablo Picasso. Picasso was unaware of da Vinci’s work, but he did return a collection of Iberian Bronze Age figures that had been stolen by Pieret in 1907.

Widespread Public Attention – 1912-1913

Over time, there was widespread speculation concerning the location of the Mona Lisa. The New York Times wrote that “a great number of citizens have turned amateur Sherlock Holmeses, and continue to advance most extraordinary theories.” Some claimed that J.P. Morgan, an influential American banker, had orchestrated the heist in order to enhance his art collection. Others felt that the Germans were behind the theft with the intention of humiliating the French. Reports of sightings began to come in from remote locations like Brazil, Russia, and Japan, yet the case continued unabated for more than two years. There was a growing belief among many people that Da Vinci’s 400-year-old masterwork had been permanently lost.

Unknown to the police, the Mona Lisa remained in France. The culprit responsible for the theft was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant who had previously been employed as a maintenance worker at the Louvre. He also contributed to the construction of the Mona Lisa’s protective frame. Following the theft of the picture in August 1911, the 29-year-old individual concealed it in his residence inside a wooden trunk that had a hidden compartment. Having previously worked at the Louvre, he was interrogated twice regarding the theft. However, the police never regarded him as a primary suspect. Peruggia hid the Mona Lisa for two years, during which he waited for the dissipation of public attention.

Enhanced Security Measures at the Louvre – October 1913

The Louvre authorities enacted more stringent security protocols in anticipation of safeguarding additional invaluable artworks as a consequence of the theft. The measures included the installation of advanced alarm systems, augmentation of security staff, enforcement of more stringent access controls, and upgrading of surveillance technologies. The authorities established partnerships with law enforcement agencies and international organizations to enhance their capacity to prevent and address art theft. The tragedy also compelled museums and galleries worldwide to reassess their security systems, acknowledging the susceptibility of precious artifacts to theft and damage.

Attempted Sale of the Stolen “Mona Lisa” – December 12, 1913

Peruggia opted to attempt selling the picture to an art dealer named Alfred Geri in Florence, using the alias Leonardo Vincenzo. Geri, being naturally cautious, promptly requested the presence of the director of an Italian art gallery to accompany him in the meeting with Peruggia. Upon verifying the painting’s genuineness, the two Italian art connoisseurs feigned compliance with Perugia’s sale, all the while covertly contacting the police. The painting then returned to the Louvre, where it is currently on display.

The Mona Lisa returned at the Louvre Museum
The Mona Lisa returned at the Louvre Museum

Afterwards, the authorities apprehended Peruggia, who asserted that his sole motive for stealing the artwork was to return it to its native land in Italy. Ironically, Peruggia’s unlawful criminal activities contributed to the worldwide renown of the Mona Lisa.

Vincenzo Peruggia Sentencing – June 5, 1914

Vincenzo Peruggia was accused of theft and subjected to a trial in Italy, where on June 5, 1914 he was sentenced to a term of one year and 15 days.

During the trial, Peruggia asserted that his act of stealing the painting was motivated by a sense of national pride. He firmly thought that the painting had been unlawfully taken from his home country of Italy during the Napoleonic era. In reality, Da Vinci delivered the Mona Lisa to France in 1516, and King Francois I subsequently acquired it lawfully. Peruggia was incorrect in his thinking, but his patriotic defense garnered him legions of admirers.

Despite the prosecution’s presentation of evidence indicating his intention to market the picture to art dealers and make a profit from it, a significant number of Italians continued to view him as a national hero. Ultimately, he received a prison term of one year and 15 days, but he only served seven months before being released.

Mugshot and fingerprints of Vincenzo Peruggia.
Mugshot and fingerprints of Vincenzo Peruggia.

Aftermath of the Theft

Newspapers widely hailed the “Mona Lisa” theft as one of the most significant art thefts in history. The painting’s vanishing and eventual retrieval captivated the public’s fascination, raising it to a legendary level. The incident not only heightened the painting’s renown but also cemented its position in popular culture, guaranteeing its lasting significance for future generations.

FAQs about Mona Lisa

What Happened to the Person Who Stole the Mona Lisa?

Following police interrogation and subsequent arrest, Vincenzo Peruggia was convicted and given a brief prison sentence. Despite being sentenced to one year and 15 days, he was released after serving only seven months.

Peruggia is considered a criminal, yet some view him as a patriot. However, the exact reason behind his crime remains unknown to this day. The prevailing explanation posits that the man intended to repatriate the picture to its perceived motherland, Italy. Following his service in the Italian military during World War I, he returned to France and passed away in 1925.

How many times has the Mona Lisa been stolen?

The Mona Lisa was stolen only one time. On August 21, 1911, it was stolen by an Italian employee of the Louvre, motivated by his Italian patriotism.

Although stolen once, the Mona Lisa has been vandalized numerous times. The painting, purchased by France in 1797, has been subjected to spray paint and a teacup being hurled at it since the early 1900s. It was caked in 2022 and splattered with soup in 2024. Two vandals attempted to destroy it in 1956 using a razor blade and a rock. The Mona Lisa has always surfaced undamaged.

Why is Mona Lisa so Famous?

Mona Lisa became famous after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, as prior to that, it was primarily recognized within the art community. The subject’s face, depicted realistically, and showcases Leonardo’s adept use of sfumato, an artistic technique that employs delicate variations of light and shadow to shape form. Additionally, it demonstrates his comprehension of the underlying skull structure beneath the skin. Following the theft, the object gained significant attention and became an integral element of popular culture.

Who Painted the Mona Lisa?

Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci. He was a famous artist who had a big impact on the development of the Italian Renaissance. During his lifetime, Da Vinci made many works of contemporary art. His work on the Mona Lisa began in the middle of the 1500s. The Mona Lisa was not painted on a canvas, in contrast to the many other works of art from that era. Instead, she was painted on a board made of wood.

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