The year was 1911.
On the morning of August 21, three men parading as museum staff quietly slipped out of the Louvre Museum in Paris with the world’s most famous painting hidden under a blanket.
Museum staff only discovered the daring theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisawhen they entered the Salon Carré — the room where the painting hung — and found a blank section of wall.
All they saw were the four iron pegs that once fastened the object in place.
Where the Mona Lisa should have hung, at the Salon Carré, Louvre Museum, after having been stolen in 1911. Image source Wikimedia Commons
When the alarm went out, police raced to the museum. All the doors were sealed shut, with staff and visitors detained inside — but by then the painting had already left the city.
The theives had hidden in the museum overnight. They took the painting, removed it from its frame and glass, and hurried to the Quai d’Orsay railway station on the left bank of the Seine, boarding the 7:47a.m. express out of Paris.
France’s borders were placed on high alert. Officials examined every vehicle that crossed the border in the hope of intersecting the lost painting.
The news went around the world, with the New York Times declaring, “60 Detectives Seek Stolen ‘Mona Lisa,’ French Public Indignant.”
In the weeks following, huge numbers of Parisians queued to witness the empty section of wall where the famous painting once hung. It was as if the blank space had a magnetism all of its own, with everyone wondering: how could this happen?
The Paris-Journal newspaper offered 50,000 francs for the painting’s return. Soon, a tip-off from an art thief caused police to turn their attention toward one of the country’s most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.
Picasso became the first suspect
Pablo Picasso had lived in Paris since 1904, taking up residence at the Bateau-Lavoir at 13 Rue de Ravignan in Montmartre.
By 1911, he was deeply involved in his Cubist period, alongside his fellow painter and friend Georges Braque.
Pablo Picasso pictured in 1912, stood before his Cubist painting ‘The Aficionado’. Image source Wikimedia Commons
Among Picasso’s other friends was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire. Several years before, Picasso had paid 100 francs for two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th century BCE, themselves stolen from the Louvre by an unscrupulous colleague of Apollinaire.
Realising that these previously stolen artefacts might put them in a compromising position, Picasso and Apollinaire panicked. They took their plundered sculptures in a suitcase and raced down to the River Seine where they intended to throw them in the water.
When they got to the water’s edge, they hesitated. They ended up changing their minds and depositing the statues at the offices of Paris-Journal with the hope that the newspaper would grant them anonymity.
It wasn’t to be. Within days the police had detained Apollinaire, and by early September, Picasso had been ordered to appear before a magistrate as a suspect. When asked if he knew Apollinaire, the avant-garde painter claimed, “I have never seen this man.”
Picasso later remembered the moment he betrayed his friend, saying, “I saw Guillaume’s expression changed. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.”
Eventually, the judge determined that, despite Picasso and Apollinaire being in possession of stolen art, they had nothing to do with the disappearance of the Mona Lisa.
The case was thrown out.
The real culprit is found
The police hunt for the stolen painting continued, but months passed with no breakthrough.
It wasn’t until two years after the initial theft that a Florence-based art dealer named Alfredo Geri received a letter. It was signed mysteriously “Leonardo” and claimed that the Mona Lisa was for sale at a price half-a-million dollars.
With the letter, Picasso and Apollinaire were finally cleared from any possible connection to the crime.
Alfredo Geri arranged a meeting with the so-called “Leonardo” and found himself face-to-face with the Renaissance painting.
He was allowed to take it to the Uffizi for authentication. With the painting in his possession, he seized the opportunity to call the police. Minutes later, “Leonardo” — otherwise known as Vincenzo Peruggia — was arrested. As the mastermind behind the theft, Peruggia was sentenced to eight months in prison.
Left: The return of the Mona Lisa to the Louvre Museum in 1914. Image source Wikimedia Commons. Right: Mug shot of Vincenzo Peruggia, who was believed to have stolen the Mona Lisa in 1911. Image source Wikimedia Commons
The curious legacy of the theft
It is thought that at least 120,000 people went to see the painting in the first two days after it was returned to the Louvre. Before its theft, the reputation of the Mona Lisa was significant but not more so than many other paintings in the museum.
The unparalled attention it received after its safe return transformed it into a cultural icon.
Meanwhile, the fate of the thief was equally curious. Since the Mona Lisa had been painted by an Italian artist — and only in Paris because Napoleon had stolen it first — Peruggia was celebrated as a patriot for his attempt to return it to Italy.
He was hailed as a national hero.