Early in the morning on Aug. 21, 1911,a man crawled out of a storage closet in the Louvre. Having hidden there since the museum closed the night before, he now set out to get his loot: the Mona Lisa. Unnoticed, he took the painting off the wall, hid it under his smock, and quietly left through the main entrance. Although the museum was closed on Mondays, and the maintenance staff had noticed an empty space on the wall, they didn’t suspect anything. They thought the painting had been removed by one of the museum’s photographers.
When the truth was discovered a day later, the theft was reported to the police, and soon France was in an uproar. Police set up checkpoints on roads leaving Paris, and the Louvre was closed. Many guards and senior employees were ﬁred;just one year earlier, the director had promised that the Mona Lisa was safe, that it was as impossible to steal the painting as to run off with Notre Dame’s bell tower. But now the masterpiece was gone, and nobody knew who had absconded with it.
Until then, the painting had been relatively unknown, but with the spectacular theft, the woman with the enigmatic smile became the talk of the town. Like mourners at a funeral, people came from all over to place ﬂowers on the ﬂoor of the room where the portrait had hung. After the initial shock passed, “Mona Lisa” became a character in cabarets, plays and songs. Postcards with photos of the painting leaving Paris with da Vinci were popular, while the police struggled to find the guilty party.
Prominent people, such as Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, came under scrutiny and were questioned, and the list of possible thieves grew longer each day. At the same time, the reward for recovering the painting was constantly increasing. And yet a breakthrough in the investigation didn’t come. Two years after the theft, the Louvre had more or less accepted that the Mona Lisa
was gone for good. But then Alfredo Geri, an art dealer in Florence, received a letter from a man who called himself Leonard and claimed to have the painting. As a good patriot, the sender said, he wanted to bring it back to his and da Vinci’s Italian homeland — at the cost of only 500,000 lira. Geri and Giovanni Poggi, the director of Florence’s Ufﬁzi Gallery, met with the man, who brought a suitcase. Hidden under the ragged clothes and worn-out shoes, in a secret compartment, was an object wrapped in red silk. It was the Mona Lisa, without so much as a scratch.The men took the painting to the Uffizi, and Geri and Poggi contacted the police, who arrested the thief.
During the trial,”Leonard,”an Italian named vincenzo Perruggia, revealed that, before the theft, he’d worked at the Louvre and thought of stealing the Mona Lisa. After pulling off the heist, he hid the painting in a cupboard and under the stove of his apartment in Paris for more than two years.
The theft cost Perruggia some time in prison, but it secured him a place in the history books as the mastermind behind the world’s most spectacular art theft.The disappearing act also had consequences for the Mono Lisa: It returned to France an icon, attracting millions of visitors to the Louvre every year since.