Stealing the Mona Lisa

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Stealing the Mona Lisa
In 1962 the Mona Lisa was valued at $100 million. In 2019, she was estimated to be worth a cool $2.67 billion. The highest selling picture to date is another painting by Leonardo da Vinci, the Salvator Mundi, which was sold at Christie’s auction in New York to Prince Badr bin Abdullah for an appropriately princely sum of $450.3 million in November 2017. How wonderfully quixotic then, that just over 100 years earlier in 1911, an Italian handyman working in the Louvre put the Mona Lisa under his work smock and simply walked out of the building. The Mona Lisa was not be seen again for two years. Vincenzo Peruggia’s audacious theft ensured that the subsequent publicity and the continued mystery of La Joconde’s whereabouts resulted in making the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world. And she has never been knocked off that top spot since. There were various suspects in the frame as the police frantically tried to find the thief and, more importantly, the painting. The first obvious suspect was Gery Pieret, who already had a history of successfully targeting the Louvre. But unable to find Pieret in Paris, the police turned their attentions to Pieret’s employer, who was none other than the illustrious poet and forefather of Surrealism, Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire was arrested and imprisoned, more because of his many publicized statements advocating the burning down of the Louvre, than on any hard evidence. Picasso, a friend of Apollinaire, was also under suspicion simply by association, the police desperate to solve this high-profile theft, with or without any concrete proof. Peruggia was questioned by the police but they believed his alibi that he had been working elsewhere when the Mona Lisa was stolen. The painting was to remain, unsuspected and hidden, in a trunk in Peruggia’s apartment in Paris for the next two years. It doubtless could have stayed there undiscovered for years, had Peruggia not decided to return to Italy with it, where he claimed it belonged. Peruggia’s altruism fell short however when he decided to sell the painting. As with every great story, conspiracies abounded. One favorite was that the theft had been instigated by an Argentinian, Eduardo de Valfierno, who had commissioned the French art restorer and forger, Yves Chaudron, to make six copies of the Mona Lisa to be shipped to the United States and be sold to private buyers as the original artwork. Whatever the truth, Peruggia, now with the Mona Lisa in his apartment in Florence, thought that a reward would be in order for returning the painting to his homeland. He approached Alfredo Geri, the owner of an art gallery in Florence, with his offer. Geri immediately showed the painting to Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery, who took no time in authenticating it and informing the police of Peruggia’s whereabouts. It was hardly surprising that after this Italian ‘coup’ in discovering the whereabouts of a treasure the French police had conspicuously failed to find, that the celebrations and self congratulations manifested themselves with banner headlines and a triumphant tour around Italy of the Mona Lisa before she was returned to her rightful place, back in France in the Louvre. Peruggia, taking into account his ‘patriotism to his native country,’ was given a six-month prison sentence. He died aged 44 in Saint-Maur-des-Fosses, in France, the country he had deprived of its most famous piece of art, resulting in one of the biggest police operations, for two long years. The Mona Lisa may have survived her greatest scandal but she was still to invoke passionate and sadly negative impulses. In 1956 a mindless vandal threw acid at her and later the same year she suffered more damage from someone throwing a rock. Fortunately she was quickly restored to her enigmatic self. Her tribulations continued in 1974 when on loan to the Tokyo National Museum, she was sprayed with red paint from a visitor angry at the museum’s policy towards disabled people. 2009 saw a Russian woman throw a tea cup at her in the Louvre, perhaps unaware that as in Tokyo, the Mona Lisa was protected by bulletproof glass. (The offender was angry not to have been granted French citizenship.) The Russian woman, as with the visitor aggrieved at the disability policy, seemed to have found in the Mona Lisa an acceptable scapegoat for their discontent– unless of course they simply did not like the way she was smiling… And now, of course, we must come to ‘that smile’. The most talked about, described, sung about pair of lips in the world. The Italians call it ‘sfumato’, blurry, ambiguous and ‘up to the imagination’. Enigmatic and mysterious are probably the descriptions most used, but is she happy, sad or maybe just thinking of what’s for dinner that evening? An even more intriguing theory emerged recently when the Mona Lisa was put under infra-red analysis. Silvano Vinceti deduced from these results that the painting was an amalgamation of two models, the accepted face of Lisa Gherardini and Gian Giacomo Caprotti, da Vinci’s apprentice and lover. Caprotti began working for da Vinci when he was ten years old and stayed with him for the next two decades. Vinceti’s theory however was soon brutally rebuffed by a leading da Vinci expert and professor emeritus of History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford as, ‘a mish mash of known things, semi-known things and complete fantasy.’ Where the Mona Lisa is concerned, theories abound, and no doubt will continue to do so, unchecked, and the whole…

Lead photo credit : Mona Lisa. Image (C) Wikimedia. Public Domain

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-01-17 07:46:45
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Michael, as always thank you for your prompt and erudite response. I have to sadly agree. Shamed after years of visiting the Louvre and never feeling impelled to see her, I finally joined the crowd surrounding her ( annoying in itself enough) to find myself just wondering why this small painting is the most famous, revered painting in the world? Anyway, it is and our opinions won't change the opinions of millions who will still no doubt be queuing for years to come to see her. Many thanks again


  • Michael James
    2020-01-17 06:34:25
    Michael James
    "One can only hazard a guess that were da Vinci to be alive today, he would be shocked by the light that has been shining on the Mona Lisa above all of his other works of genius." Coming out of an art studio-production house in Renaissance Florence he would have been familiar with the overheated scrabble for fame and fortune, not just in the art world but as it interacted with the nobility and the church. So he might have been amused but he wouldn't have taken it seriously. Because whichever way one thinks about it, the mega-fame of any one painting or work of art is ridiculous. A modern day publicist could hardly have organised a better stunt than its theft and the treasure hunt for it over several years. And I have the suspicion he would be much more interested in technology and science today than anything artistic, since his art and design seems mostly da Vinci's attempts to understand the world and the way nature operates. As to his works, I suppose I have seen a bunch of them over the decades, including I assume standing in the queue (line) about 4 decades ago, to traipse past La Giaconda (though really it hardly matters does it?). I hold out the hope/fantasy that the amazing double-helical staircase at the heart of Chateau Chambord was indeed his design (posthumously given form*) as it is both a kind of physical perfection from a design point of view, and also a ridiculous pre-emption of the most fundamental structure in all biology, and therefore of our universe really! But he would doubtless say that that notion is almost as ridiculous as Mona Lisa's fame. *It is unproven speculation that da Vinci was working on the designs of Francois I's fabulous chateau but it does have several exceptional aspects, with the staircases being the most exceptional, that make it stand out among other chateaux. Amongst some spectacular staircases it still takes first prize IMO because it so perfectly combines form with function.