A hundred years ago, on Aug. 21, 1911, an Italian painter and decorator slipped from the cupboard in the Louvre where he had been hiding all night, stepped up to the Mona Lisa, freed her from her frame and left the building apparently unseen. It was 24 hours before anyone noticed she was missing.
The usual line is that the Louvre was closed for maintenance and everyone thought that somebody else must have removed the picture to be photographed, or cleaned. But museums are — or were — surprisingly blind to crime, even when it involves stealing the world’s most famous painting. Or perhaps not the world’s most famous painting — the Mona Lisa certainly wasn’t universally known in 1911. You still had to travel to the Louvre to see her. There were prints, though Leonardo da Vinci’s cumulative portrait, gradually painted over several years, had long proved extremely hard to copy as an engraving. And photographs did exist — indeed the French police printed off 6,500 copies for distribution in the streets of Paris immediately after her disappearance, as if to jog someone’s memory.
These mug shots were also for comparison with any forgery that might turn up purporting to be the original. For the Mona Lisa wears a fine veil of craquelure — that pattern of tiny cracks that can form in the surface of a painting when it’s as old as she is — that is more or less impossible to fake. Wrinkles are her positive ID. But a century ago, the painting’s fame was restricted to the west, where she had been buoyed up on clouds of romantic hype ever since Walter Pater wrote in 1869: “She is older than the rocks among which she sits, like the vampire she has been dead many times,” which although not exactly gallant, broadcast her strange allure to hundreds of thousands.
A picture that could still come as something of a surprise: unthinkable now, but in those days reproductions of the Mona Lisa had only fairly recently become popular. What really put a face to the name was the press coverage inspired by the theft. Every major newspaper in Europe covered the story, and every story was illustrated with a reproduction of the painting. One paper, France’s l’Illustration, even produced a center spread, peddling the story that Leonardo had been in love with his sitter, and promising to work toward a color reproduction. Millions of people who might not have seen it, might never even have heard of it, soon became experts on Leonardo’s stolen painting.
One of the first suspects was Pablo Picasso. The painter had nothing to do with the crime but immediately tried to dispose of some statues that turned out to have been stolen from the same museum. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire was also brought in for questioning. No charges were brought, though suspicion followed Picasso for a while — surely a great painter would want a great painting, ran the theory. For almost two years the trail went cold.
The painting was in Switzerland or Argentina. Or it was in a cold-water apartment in the Bronx or a secret room in the mansion of JP Morgan. In fact it never left Paris, or not until the thief, Vincenzo Perruggia, went to Florence in December 1913 after contacting a Florentine dealer called Alfred Geri, who he hoped would help him dispose of this unsalable hostage for cash. Geri played along, even bringing the director of the Uffizi to the meeting at the Albergo Tripoli-Italian (needless to say swiftly renamed the Hotel La Gioconda). The painting was removed from its false-bottomed trunk. The craquelure was identified, and Geri promptly called the police.