Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, is one of the world’s most famous and instantly recognized images. Painted in 1507, the Mona Lisa is renowned for the 16th century Florentine noblewoman’s enigmatic smile and debates over who she actually was.
The iconic artwork today helps attract millions of visitors to the Louvre in Paris – making it one of the most popular museums in the world. But perhaps the work would not be quite so well known if it hadn’t been for the events of 21 August 1911.
Here are 10 facts about the audacious theft of the Mona Lisa, and how this helped make it the world’s most famous painting.
1. The painting was stolen by the Louvre’s odd-job man, Vincenzo Peruggia
Vincenzo Peruggia had moved to Paris in 1908, and had worked as an odd-job man hired to carry out work at the Louvre. He was an Italian patriot who believed that da Vinci’s Mona Lisa should be returned to his home country.
2. The theft was surprisingly easy to carry out
Whilst Peruggia planned to steal the painting, this was no intricately masterminded extraction. On 21 August 1911, Peruggia went to the museum through the workers door and dressed in the white smock that all the employees wore.
(There is debate as to whether he entered the museum the previous night and hid in a small cupboard until the museum closed so that he could emerge in the morning to collect the painting without the need to identify himself to a guard at the entrace, but Peruggia denied this).
Da Vinci had painted the painting on three slabs of wood, a fairly common practice during the Renaissance, which made it weigh more than a simple canvas. Steps had also been taken to protect the painting by reinforcing it with a large wooden brace and placing it inside a glass-fronted box. Removing the painting from its frame, Peruggia hid it under his clothes seeing as it could not be rolled up.
On his way out, he was almost thwarted when he found his route of escape blocked by a locked door. Despite having obtained a key, this failed to work. On hearing footsteps approaching, Peruggia used a screwdriver to remove the doorknob. He then complained to the passer by (one of the Louvre’s plumbers, named Sauvet) about the missing doorknob, so Sauvet helpfully used some pliers to open the door and let him out.
3. It wasn’t until the following day that anyone noticed the painting had gone
The museum was not heavily guarded overnight and staff and artists assumed the painting had been taken away to be cleaned or photographed. It was only after an artist, Louis Béroud (who was there to paint the Mona Lisa), asked a guard when the painting might be returned that enquiries began. When the realisation hit that the Mona Lisa really was gone (26 hours after the theft took place), the Louvre was closed immediately to begin the investigation.
The French borders were closed and a hefty reward was offered to anyone who found the Mona Lisa.
4. Pablo Picasso was once considered a suspect
The police were as baffled as everyone else as to who had stolen the painting.
It was thought that modernist enemies of traditional art must be involved. Guillaume Apollinaire, the avant-garde poet and playwright, was arrested and questioned for a week before being released. Pablo Picasso was the next prominent suspect, but there was no evidence against him either, despite suspicions remaining. Nevertheless, Picasso took the opportunity to try and dispose of some statues that turned out to have been stolen from the same museum.
Known for his collecting habits which frequently took him on buying sprees through Europe, at one time the American financier and banker J.P. Morgan was suspected of having the stolen artwork, which he strongly denied.
5. The theft became global news and a media sensation
The image of the Mona Lisa was distributed in newspapers far and wide when the crime was reported. Every major newspaper in Europe covered the story, and every story was illustrated with a reproduction of the painting. This led millions of people who might not have previously seen the painting, might never even have heard of it, to soon think they were knowledgeable on Leonardo’s stolen painting.
Crowds even queued in their thousands outside the Louvre just to see the space where it had once hung.
The theft inspired newspaper stories for weeks; any report on the case, no matter how trivial, found its way into print, with conspiracy theories abound. It would be two years before the painting reappeared.
6. Peruggia attempted to sell the Mona Lisa to the Uffizi gallery in Florence
Tired of sitting on the spoils of his heist, Vincenzo Peruggia attempted to sell the Mona Lisa several times. In November 1913, and calling himself Leonardo Vincenzo, Peruggia wrote to an art dealer in Florence, Alfredo Geri, offering to bring him the painting for a 500,000 lire reward.
The next month, he made the trip and took the painting to Geri’s gallery. Geri played along, and according to Geri, when questioned about the painting’s authenticity, ‘Leonard’ replied:
“We are dealing with the real Mona Lisa. I have good reason to be sure.”
Geri said that Leonard had coolly declared that he was certain because he had taken the painting from the Louvre himself.
The next day, Geri brought the director of the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Giovanni Poggi, to another meeting. Peruggia was persuaded to leave the painting for examination by an expert, and was arrested by police later that day.
He served only a brief prison sentence of seven months. He later returned to France and opened a paint shop in Haute-Savoie, having served in the Italian Army during World War One.
7. Many Italians were glad to see the Mona Lisa back in its ‘true home’
Peruggia had mistakenly believed that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon, and felt he deserved a reward for doing his patriotic duty and returning it back to Italy (the Mona Lisa had in fact come to France more than two centuries before Napoleon was born).
Many Italians welcomed the painting home, with people flocking to see it when it was displayed briefly at the Uffizi Gallery for several weeks and toured through Italy.
8. The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre on 4 January 1914
The theft changed how the world saw the Mona Lisa. Peruggia’s act, and the whirl of press attention that ensued, had transformed the Mona Lisa into one of the most recognisable and famous artworks in the world.
9. The theft may have been encouraged or masterminded by Eduardo de Valfierno
Valifierno was a con-man, and it is said he commissioned the French art forger Yves Chaudron to make copies of the painting which he could then sell as the missing original, increasing their value.
Furthermore, Valfierno said Peruggia did not act alone, having two accomplices who were needed to lift the painting, with its heavy protective container and frame, from the wall and carry it to a place where the frame could be removed.
This theory is based entirely on a 1932 article by former Hearst journalist Karl Decker in The Saturday Evening Post. Decker claimed to have known Valfierno and heard the story from him in 1913, promising not to print it until he learned of Valfierno’s death. It is not known whether there is any truth to the theory.
10. Nat King Cole covered the song ‘Mona Lisa’ about the painting in 1950
The cover version of Mona Lisa by Nat King Cole was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1992. He described this song as one of his favourites among his recordings.
Whilst the song does not reference the theft, it highlights how it had brought the painting so much fame, long after the event, which continues to this day.
In 1962, the Mona Lisa received a valuation of $100m. Accounting for inflation, the Mona Lisa would be estimated to be worth between $834m to $860m in today’s money.