By Jean Marie Carey

The Mona Lisa is the focus of much creative projection and sleuthing. But at the beginning of the 20th Century, Leonardo da Vinci’s 1503 painting was at the center of a flesh-and-blood mystery when it was stolen from the Louvre in Paris. Having disappeared from the museum in August 1911, La Joconde was recovered in Florence on 11 December 1913.

Dorothy Hoobler and Thomas Hoobler described some of the excitement around the scene of the heist in an excerpt from their 2009 book The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection:

In the days and weeks immediately following the theft, anyone carrying a package received attention—including, at one point, a young Spanish artist named Pablo Picasso, who, four years earlier, had purchased several small Iberian stone heads that were filched from the Louvre by the secretary of avant-garde writer Guillaume Apollinaire. (Apollinaire spent a few days in jail, but Picasso had the last laugh—he used the Iberian heads as models for his Demoiselles d’Avignon.) Police at checkpoints on roads leading out of the capital examined the contents of every wagon, automobile, and truck. Fearing that the thief would try to flee the country, customs inspectors opened and examined the baggage of everyone leaving on ships or trains. Ships that departed during the day that had elapsed between the theft and its discovery were searched when they reached their overseas destinations. After the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm II docked at a pier across the Hudson River from New York City in late August, detectives combed every stateroom and piece of luggage for the masterpiece. […]One tourist, an aspiring writer named Franz Kafka, visiting the Louvre on a trip to Paris in late 1911, noted in his diary “the excitement and the knots of people, as if the Mona Lisa had just been stolen.” Some even began to place bouquets of flowers beneath the spot where the painting once resided.

The crime was ostensibly solved – though conspiracy theories abound – in Florence when painter and handyman Vincenzo Perugia attempted to sell the painting to art dealer Alfredo Geri and Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery. Perugia, who had briefly worked at the Louvre, had hidden in the museum overnight, smuggled the painting out under his smock and stashed it in a trunk. He spent seven months in jail, but his crime gave the painting even more fame.

Reference: Bethan Stevens. “Spekphrasis: writing about lost artworks, or, Mona Lisa and the museum.” Critical Quarterly 55, no. 4 (December 2013): 54-64.

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The empty hooks on the Louvre wall that once held the Mona Lisa. From the Mary Evans Picture Library/The Image Works.

Mug shots of Vincenzo Perugia, the man accused of taking the Mona Lisa. From Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection.

The Mona Lisaon display in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, December 1913. Museum director Giovanni Poggi (right) inspects the painting. From Roger-Viollet/The Image Works.

The Louvre, after the Mona Lisa was stolen, 1911. From Mirrorpix.

Further Reading: Edward Dolnick. The Rescue Artist: A True Story of art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece. New York City: Harper Collins, 2005. .

Vincent Pomarède, Anja Grebe, and Hans Peter L’Orange, The Louvre: All the Paintings. New York City: Hachette Book Group, 2011.

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