The Mona Lisa's Thief:



Political Hero

By Daphne Minks Daly

Photo Courtesy of Nan Palmero

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo Da Vinci

The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous and recognizable paintings in the world. However, that was not always the case. Conceived by the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, the painting has been recognized as a priceless work of art since the early 1500s. However, it was just over 100 years ago that it became an iconic cultural phenomenon.


Fascinatingly, the painting's disappearance catapulted the Mona Lisa into the spotlight, gaining the piece worldwide notoriety. Stolen directly off the wall from the world's most famous museum, It is considered the most significant robbery in art history. The theft has often been called 'the art heist of the century.' 


It was an art student, planning to paint inside the Museé du Louvre in Paris, who first noticed the masterpiece missing from the gallery. Curious about the Mona Lisa's whereabouts, the young artist notified guards, who in return checked with the gallery's cleaning and photography staff. The museum's paintings were often removed for cleaning or photography, so few noticed the blank space where the Mona Lisa usually hung. 


After ensuring that none of the Louvre's staff members had moved the painting from its housing, the search began. Locking the doors with its visitors inside, the Louvre contacted the police only after finding the Mona Lisa's frame in a stairwell. The police later discovered that staff had been unaware of the Mona Lisa's absence for more than 24 hours. 

That same evening, museum officials made the decision to tell the world about the theft. "The Mona Lisa is gone," an official declared. "Thus far, we haven't a clue as to who might have committed this crime." An immediate international sensation, newspapers from every corner of the world ran headlines about the theft. 


News of the disappearance inspired outcry, with the Parisian magazine L'Illustration stating, "What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?" The public was bewildered, and theories began to circulate. One such speculation was that Germany had taken the cherished work of art to embarrass the French. But no matter the size of the media spectacle, police were unable to round up many clues. 

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Guillaume Apollinaire

The French police interrogated staff and looked for clues inside the museum for nine days, with as many as 60 detectives on the case at one time. Detectives swooped, dusting for fingerprints and searching passengers and pedestrians at various checkpoints throughout the city. Wanted posters were circulated. When the Louvre reopened a week later, thousands came to ogle the empty space where the painting once hung.

As time wore on, speculation on the Mona Lisa's whereabouts continued to gain momentum. Theories even suggested that J.P. Morgan, the American investment tycoon wanted to expand his private art collection and had ordered the theft. The New York Times penned, "a great number of citizens have turned amateur Sherlock Holmeses, and continue to advance most extraordinary theories." 


For a time, the investigation focused on Guillaume Apollinaire, an avant-garde poet remembered for his assertion that the Louvre should "be burned down." Apollinaire was considered even more of a viable suspect after police linked him to the earlier theft of two sculptures from the Louvre. Implicating his friend Pablo Picasso during his interrogation, Apollinaire claimed Picasso had purchased the stolen statues from him. Officials vigorously investigated both Apollinaire and Picasso as to their possible involvement, but both were later cleared. 

Searching for the painting for more than two years, investigators received hundreds of alleged sightings reports in Russia, Brazil, and even as far away as Japan. With no decent leads, many considered the theft of the 400-year-old masterpiece an unsolvable mystery. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, the Mona Lisa wasn't far at all. The painting and its captor were in a one-room Parisian apartment.

The thief's name was Vincenzo Perugia, an Italian handyman that called France his home. Perugia had been hired to help install glass cases in the Louvre and later assisted in constructing the Mona Lisa's protective frame. As a previous employee of the Louvre, Vincenzo was interviewed. But, the police never regarded him as a suspect. 

For two years, 29-year-old Perugia kept the Mona Lisa hidden in a false-bottomed wooden trunk in his apartment. Biding his time, Vincenzo waited until December of 1913 to try and sell the famous artwork. Perugia contacted Alfredo Geri, an art dealer in Florence, Italy. Vincenzo explained that he would be willing to sell the Mona Lisa to him. Suspicious, Geri agreed to the meeting, insisting that he bring Giovanni Poggi, reasoning that the famous Uffizi Gallery director could authenticate the painting. 


A few days later, the men assembled in Perugia's hotel room, where Perugia presented an article encased in silk. "We placed it on the bed," Geri later wrote, "and to our astonished eyes the divine Mona Lisa appeared, intact and marvelously preserved."

Photo Courtesy of

Agreeing to Perugia's sale price of 500,000 lire, the two art experts immediately arranged for the painting to be transported to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. With no intention of purchasing the stolen painting, the portrait was authenticated, and officials were informed. Police arrested Vincenzo Perugia for theft at his hotel on the afternoon of December 11, 1913. 

As the facts of the case began to unfold in the Italian courtroom, it became clear that Perugia's caper was not only monumental but brazenly simple. Vincenzo Perugia said that he entered the Louvre on the evening of Sunday, August 20, 1911, and made his way to the Salon Carré, where the Da Vinci painting was displayed. Hiding inside a storage closet, Vincenzo stated he remained there until a little before 7:30 a.m. It was then Perugia resurfaced wearing a white apron, the garment worn by museum employees. 


Removing the work of art from the wall, Vincenzo simply hid the painting under his clothing and continued walking. Carrying it to a nearby service stairwell, Perugia separated the canvas from its protective glass frame and attempted to make his escape. But, when the thief tried to exit the door leading to the museum's courtyard, he found it was locked. 


After covering the Mona Lisa in a white sheet, Vincenzo began to take the doorknob apart when he was discovered by a plumber working at the Louvre. The plumber, believing Perugia when he claimed to be a trapped co-worker, helped him open the door. With much gratitude, Vincenzo Perugia and the Mona Lisa disappeared into the city streets. 

Photo Courtesy of WikiCommons

The Ceiling of Salon Carre'

Perugia claimed he had acted out of patriotic duty and insisted the theft was only to return the painting to Italy, it's proper home. He emphatically believed, he claimed, that the Mona Lisa had been plundered from his native country. However, historical documents prove DaVinci brought the Mona Lisa to France in 1516. Further documentation reveals it was later legally purchased by King Francois I. 


The prosecution presented a wealth of evidence against that Perugia, such as prior robbery convictions, a diary with a list of art collectors, and his foiled plan to sell the painting to Alfredo Geri. Nevertheless, Vincenzo's nationalistic defense gained him countless admirers, and to many, he was seen as a political hero. But most Italians believed he stole the beloved painting only out of greed. 


Vincenzo would later change his reasoning for the theft, declaring, "I fell in love with her." He would go on to say, "I fell a victim to her smile and feasted my eyes on my treasure every evening." Convicted and sentenced to a year and 15 days in prison, Vincenzo Perugia was released on appeal after serving only seven months. He later served in the Italian army during World War I before returning to France, where he died in 1925.

Photo Courtesy of

Although France's government was delighted to have the beloved artwork back, a special tour was arranged for the Mona Lisa throughout Italy before retiring to its permanent home in January of 1914. Over 120,000 people visited the Louvre to view the famed painting within the first 48-hours after its return. 


While Perugia's name has disappeared into obscurity, Mona Lisa's has not. Vincenzo Perugia's greed only established the painting as one of the most valuable and recognizable pieces of fine art in the world. The Louvre now displays DaVinci's artwork in a climate-controlled case shielded with bulletproof glass, where enhanced security measures make it virtually impossible to steal.


Author Dianne Hales once wrote, "The Mona Lisa left the Louvre a work of art. She returned as public property, the first mass art icon." A century later, as many as 8 million visitors a year queue up to see the woman with the ambiguous smile. Art lovers and critics continue to launch new theories and speculations about her mysterious smile and whether the real Mona Lisa was recovered. Her beauty is mysterious. She will always be the holder of many secrets. But above all, the Mona Lisa will remain timeless. 

Photo Courtesy of The Guardian

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