Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sensational Art Heists

The Theft of the Mona Lisa

Vincenzo Perugia
Vincenzo Perugia
Italian immigrant Vincenzo Perugia was up to no good when he went to work on August 20, 1911, at the Louvre, one of the worlds best-known museums in Paris. That Sunday night after his shift, Vincenzo hid in a room within the museum throughout the night. At some point in the late evening or early morning hours Vincenzo snuck out of the room, so as not to disturb the guards and gently walked to the area where one of the museums most-prized possessions, the Mona Lisa, hung on the wall.

Mona Lisa painting
Mona Lisa painting

Leonardo da Vincis 16th Century oil-on-poplar-wood masterpiece of a woman with an enigmatic smile continues to be hailed as one of the greatest works of art ever produced. Vincenzo was a self-proclaimed patriot and decided that the painting belonged not in the Louvre but in an Italian museum. Consequently, Vincenzo mustered all his courage, gently removed the painting from its hooks, discarded the frame and walked away with the painting under his smock. Somehow, he managed to escape detection and when he walked out of the museum he walked into history books as the person who pulled of one the biggest art heists of the century.

The painting was discovered missing on Monday, August 21, yet no one contacted the police because workers at the museum assumed that the painting had been taken to the in-house studio to be photographed for marketing purposes. It wasnt until the next day that the alarm bells went off. The moment museum staff realized that the painting was likely stolen, they immediately called the police.

In no time, the museum was cleared of visitors and a thorough search was conducted of the premises. The Mona Lisa was nowhere to be found. Police interviewed as many people as they could who might have any information concerning the lost masterpiece. However, no one was able to provide any clues as to what had become of the painting.

The theft instantly became an international sensation, prompting countless theories and rumors concerning the Mona Lisas whereabouts and the identity of the culprit. Surprisingly, one of the rumors involved the world-famous painter Pablo Picasso, who was reputed to have unknowingly purchased stolen merchandise from a friend. It was believed that he might have also bought the stolen Mona Lisa.

Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire
The rumors led to a police inquiry but eventually they realized Picasso knew nothing about the theft. Yet, Picassos friend, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, was arrested for stealing the painting, even though there was no evidence against him. The police detained Apollinaire for about a week before letting him go. Despite an exhaustive investigation, the case remained open for more than two years before the first big breakthrough was discovered.

Alfredo Geri
Alfredo Geri
On December 10, 1913, Vincenzo, using the alias Leonardo Vincenzo, spoke with art dealer Alfredo Geri at his Florence, Italy, office. Vincenzo told Geri that the Mona Lisa was in his possession and that he wanted to sell it for 500,000 lire. Geri was initially skeptical, yet he decided to view the painting at Vincenzos hotel room the next day.

Vincenzo Perugia's room in Paris
Vincenzo Perugia's room in Paris
 

Geri and his friend, Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, met with Vincenzo as planned and talked about the painting. To Geri and Poggis surprise, Vincenzo removed the rolled-up painting from a false bottom of an old trunk, PBS.org reported in the article Theft of the Mona Lisa. The men said they first had to check the authenticity of the painting before they could buy it. Vincenzo gave Geri and Poggi permission to take the painting to a museum as he waited patiently in his hotel room. After the painting was authenticated, police arrested Vincenzo, who eventually admitted his crime.

Vincenzo Perugia mugshot & prints
Vincenzo Perugia mugshot & prints
 

Allegedly, an Argentinean con artist named Eduardo de Valfierno convinced Vincenzo to steal the Mona Lisa. According to Wikipedia.com, Valfierno commissioned the French art forger Yves Chaudron to make copies of the painting so he could sell them as the missing original, leaving the real Mona Lisa in Vincenzos care because it wasnt needed for the con. Vincenzo, however, claimed that he stole the painting so he could restore it to its proper home, Italy.

Police and museum curators were less interested in why the painting was stolen and were relieved just to have found it in reasonable condition. Vincenzo was sentenced to a year and two weeks in prison for the theft, a surprisingly brief term considering the magnitude of the crime. In the midst of great pomp and circumstance, The Mona Lisa was eventually returned to the Louvre where it remains on exhibit to this day. Since its theft, great effort has been made to ensure the masterpiece is never stolen again.

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