The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous and recognizable paintings in the world, but that may never have happened if it weren’t for one particular event.
The day was August 21, 1911, and the art museum in Paris, the Louvre, was closed for visitors, as it usually was on Mondays. During the morning of that day, Vincenzo Perugia and two brothers, Vincenzo Lancelotti and Michele Lancelotti, came walking out of the Louvre. They were posing as construction workers, and Perugia was carrying something with him concealed under a jacket. It was the Mona Lisa.
The three men had arrived at the Louvre the previous afternoon on a Sunday and hid out in a small storage area near the Salon Carre, one of the museum galleries. When Monday morning came around, the men put on white clothes used by workmen. They went into the Salon Carre gallery and removed a painting from its frame—the Mona Lisa. Perugia put it under his coat, and the men escaped out a back stairwell and exited the building. A plumber passing by even unlocked the backdoor for Perugia, who discovered that the door was locked.
A full 26 hours would pass before anyone would even realize the painting had been stolen. Security during those times at the museum was very light. About 200 guards were tasked with securing an area with a collection of approximately 225,000 pieces. There were also many rooms to guard—over 400.
The Mona Lisa has always been considered a fine work of art, but it didn’t always have international acclaim. It was painted by Leonardo da Vinci in or around 1507, and it wasn’t even considered an important work outside of the art world until an essay was written about it by Walter Pater in 1867. Still, even with this, the Mona Lisa didn’t attract tourists like it does today, and other works in the museum were much more popular.
Interestingly, in 1910, a threat had been made against the Louvre in a letter about the Mona Lisa. In response, the museum hired a glazier firm, which consisted of tradesmen skilled in cutting and installing glass, to protect some of its paintings by putting them under glass. One of the men tasked to do the work was Vincenzo Perugia.
Perugia had been in trouble with the law before. In 1908 he was thrown in jail for a night after trying to rob a prostitute, and in 1909, he spent a week in a prison in Paris for carrying a gun during a fight.
After the men took the painting, it wasn’t until Tuesday night that the Louvre made it public that the Mona Lisa had been stolen. The newspapers picked up on the story quickly, and a media firestorm ensued, even around the world. Parisians got involved and rushed to the police headquarters, and they turned out in droves to visit the Louvre to get a glimpse of where the Mona Lisa had once been. But the public sentiment became a problem for Perugia. The painting had garnered so much notoriety that he couldn’t sell it on the market where other illegal goods were sold. The Mona Lisa was hot, and it had become too famous.
The police finally questioned Perugia in November of 1911. His employer had told police Perugia had been due for work and that he had been late on the Monday the Mona Lisa had been stolen. Perugia told the police that he had overslept after drinking too much the night before. They believed his story even though the Mona Lisa was sitting under a false bottom of a trunk in his home.
Interestingly, the police arrested Guillaume Apollinaire, a French poet and art critic, and artist Pablo Picasso, instead because of their association with a thief who had stolen from the Louvre before. They were released soon after their arrest, however.
It wasn’t until 1913, over two years after the Mona Lisa had been stolen that Perugia slipped up. He traveled to Florence, Italy, by train with his trunk and tried to sell the painting to an art dealer named Alfredo Geri. Geri called the director of the Uffizi Gallery, Giovanni Poggi, who confirmed the painting was the Mona Lisa. The men called the police, and Perugia was arrested at his hotel. He pleaded guilty in a court in Florence, and amazingly, only served eight months for the crime.
So why did Perugia steal the Mona Lisa in the first place? He claimed that he did it for patriotic reasons. He said he wanted the painting to be returned to Italy since Napoleon had stolen it. But some disagree, saying he stole it for monetary gain, as evidenced by letters he sent his father after the theft. The court may have agreed with his patriotic claim, however, and that may be why he received a relatively light sentence.
The Louvre had over 9.6 million visitors in 2019, and it’s a fair bet that most of them went there to see the Mona Lisa. It’s possible that without the famous heist of the Mona Lisa in 1911, the painting may have just become another fine work of art in a vast museum.