Two years after it was stolen from the Louvre, in Paris, the world’s best known painting was found in the hotel bedroom of an Italian waiter in Florence on December 12th, 1913.
The theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Mona Lisa, sent shockwaves through the art world and sparked a major international hunt for the missing masterpiece. Although the painting was not as widely recognised then as it is now, it was still well known in the art world. That raised the question of why anyone would steal it, knowing it would be almost impossible to sell?
The answer to that riddle was Italian pride. The thief later claimed his only motivation had been to see the Mona Lisa returned to Italy. Also known as ‘La Gioconda’, the painting was completed by da Vinci in 1504. Its subject – a woman with an enigmatic facial expression described as both aloof and alluring – is believed to be the wife of Francesco del Gioconda, a wealthy citizen of the Italian city of Florence.
And Florence is where the painting was recovered (pictured), found in the bedroom of Italian waiter Vincenzo Peruggia. A former employee at the Louvre, Perugia used his inside knowledge of the museum to carry out the daring but remarkably straightforward theft. He entered the building during regular opening hours then simply hid in a broom cupboard until after closing time.
He then left his hiding place, removed the painting from the wall, hid it under his coat, unlocked a door and walked out of the museum and away. Of course, this was in the days before elaborate anti-theft alarms, when the only security was guards patrolling when the museum was open and a nightwatchman after it closed.
The theft was not discovered until the next day, when French painter Louis Béroud went to view the Mona Lisa and found instead a blank space on the wall. He contacted the head of the museum guards, who thought the painting must have been removed to be photographed for new promotional material. It would be several more hours before the theft was confirmed.
Suspicion initially fell on controversial and outspoken French poet, who had publicly called for the Louvre to be burnt down. Even his friend, emerging Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, was pulled in for questioning. After they were exonerated, police and insurance investigators turned their attention to known thieves specialising in valuable works of art, but all their inquiries proved fruitless. No-one imagined it could have been stolen by a lowly janitor who strolled away with it under his coat!
Perugia strongly believed the Mona Lisa should be on display not in Paris, but in an Italian museum. He was only caught after he became impatient and attempted to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence. Even after it was found, art experts spent some time confirming it was the genuine article, as several forgeries had emerged and been offered for sale during the two years the Mona Lisa had been missing.
In fact, there was a theory that the theft had been masterminded by an Argentinian conman, Eduardo de Valfierno, who was an acquaintance of Peruggia and could have encouraged him to steal the painting. Valfierno had commissioned art forger Yves Chaudron to create six copies of the Mona Lisa, which he could only pass off as the real thing after the original went missing. Evidence emerged that Valfierno had tried several times to sell his forgeries to art collectors in America.
For his daring crime, Peruggia served just six months in prison and was actually hailed for his patriotism in Italy, with many fellow Italians applauding his motivation and audacity. Ironically, the Mona Lisa was put on display in the Uffizi Gallery, but only for two weeks while its authenticity was verified and arrangements made for its return to the Louvre.
One consequence of the theft was that security was stepped up not only at the Louvre, but at many other major museums. Today the Mona Lisa – whose fame increased because of the theft – is displayed behind bulletproof glass and protected by an array of high-tech security measures. It is impossible to know the value of the painting without it being offered for sale, but in November this year a lesser-known work by Leonardo da Vinci, the “Salvator Mundi”, became the most expensive painting ever sold when it made $450 million at auction.
Experts estimate the current value of The Mona Lisa at up to $800 million. She is viewed by millions of visitors to the Louvre every year.