Stolen Smile

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa — Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece — was stolen off the wall of the Louvre, leaving bare the four iron pegs on which it hung. The thief, later identified as then-Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia, hid in a closet the day before (a Sunday), knowing that the museum would be closed the next day.  He emerged from his hiding place on the 21st, took the Mona Lisa off the wall, discarded its nearly 200 pounds of security devices and decorative frames, and carried the painting up under his smock.  He walked out the door and into freedom — until, 28 months later, he tried to sell it, and was instead nabbed by the authorities.

Peruggia’s motivations, however, are almost certainly not those of the standard art thief: that is, he was not looking to simply (to understate the feat) fence the masterpiece and walk out an overnight millionaire.  Rather, Peruggia was either a nationalist ideologue looking to reclaim the artwork on behalf of his native Italy, or, perhaps, a rube to a master criminal in the making.

The former theory is straight-forward: Peruggia, an Italian by birth, allegedly believed that da Vinci’s work (in that he, too, was Italian) could only be properly displayed in Italy — so he stole it to fix that “problem.”  Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons to believe that Peruggia simply used this excuse — successfully, it turned out — to limit his jail time once caught.  (Tried in Italy, he served seven months, with Time implying that his patriotic motives played into the short amount of time behind bars.)  Some examples include the fact that he attempted to sell the painting (for the equivalent of $100,000) and not merely donate it; that he waited over two years to move it; that he returned to France after his release; and that he was at least loosely affiliated with another criminal syndicate: art counterfeiters.

It is the art counterfeiters story which suggests that Peruggia’s motives were less than honorable patriotism.

An Argentine con man by the name of Eduardo de Valfierno allegedly was behind the theft.  (In 1914, after the theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa, but before Peruggia was brought to trial, Valfierno told his story to an American journalist named Karl Decker, with the promise that Decker not publish the story until after Valfierno’s death.  Decker agreed.  This is the only source for Valfierno’s account.) Valfierno’s “business” was in faux masterpieces.  He’d commission artists to create realistic-looking copies of famous works of art and sell them to collectors around the world, claiming the works were the original.  To buttress his claims of authenticity, he would pass off another forgery — documents from the museums in which the original hung, stating that that the original was stolen and, to avoid embarrassment, the museum in question instead quietly displayed a replica. Unfortunately for Valfierno, one such collector bragged about one of his purchases, leading to press coverage of the (faked) theft — and almost exposing Valfierno’s fraud.  So Valfierno decided to take no further chances.

As the story goes, Valfierno hired Peruggia and others to steal the Mona Lisa — but not before he commissioned the creation of six counterfeits and made sure they were distributed around the United States.  (Valfierno surmised that it would be easy to get through customs before the theft but nearly impossible afterward.) Once the media took up the story of the theft itself, Valfierno was able to sell the six fake paintings without much trouble — and without much risk, as the purchasers, now knowingly buying stolen property, had no real recourse if they ever caught on to the swindle.  With the real Mona Lisa in Valfierno’s possession, he also had the luxury of knowing that the Louvre would never get back the original, making it unlikely at best that the purchasers of the fakes would catch on, anyway.  Of course, this part of the scheme did not go to plan.

Valfierno claims that Peruggia was well compensated for his role, but that the thief gambled that money away.  Peruggia’s solution?  He knew where Valfierno kept the true Mona Lisa, so he simply did what he had done a year or two earlier, and stole it.  Again.

Bonus fact: The Mona Lisa is not painted on canvas, but on three pieces of wood roughly an inch and a half thick.

From the Archives: China’s Oil Painting Village: Go there to get a Mona Lisa of your very own.

Related: “The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection” by Thomas Hoobler.  Eleven reviews, 4.5 stars on average.  It contains an approximately 6,500 word chapter on the theft of the Mona Lisa, upon which the above is based.  $16.49, available on Kindle for $11.99.


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