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Was the ‘Mona Lisa’ Stolen by a Famous Artist?

(Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/ Stringer/ Getty Images)
(Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

The Mona Lisa is arguably one of the most well-known paintings around the world. It is estimated that around 10.2 million people visit the Louvre Museum in Paris every year, with 80 percent of them visiting just to see the Mona Lisa. Any of these visitors could attest to the heavy security surrounding the painting, which is kept safely behind a thick glass casing mounted to the wall. 

Visitors are only able to get within a certain distance of the painting because it is kept behind barriers where tourists can stand to take photographs. But this high level of security was not always in place and is part of the reason why the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre at the beginning of the 20th century. 

During the investigation to find the Mona Lisa, the famous artist Pablo Picasso was suspected by police of stealing the masterpiece. 

Theft of the Mona Lisa

In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in what has been called one of the greatest art thefts of the 20th century. This was a much easier feat one hundred years ago than it would be today, given the lack of security and the fact that none of the artwork in the Louvre was bolted to the wall. 

the Mona Lisa on the left hand side of the image behind glass, with people taking photos behind a barrier on the right.
The current security surrounding the Mona Lisa which keeps the painting behind think glass, and visitors a set distance away. (Photo Credit: Marc Piasecki/ Getty Images)

After the theft occurred, it took roughly twenty-four hours for anyone to notice that the painting was actually missing, as many people assumed it had just been taken down for cleaning. When it was officially classified as missing, there were allegedly sixty French detectives put on the case to try and find the missing artwork. 

Drastic actions were taken to try and find the painting, including closing the French borders in order to search ships and trains. There were also large monetary rewards offered for the painting’s safe return. 

Pablo Picasso: art thief?

Police turned their attention to Pablo Picasso when a tip from an art thief, Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret, pointed them in his direction. Pieret admitted that he would steal small items from the Louvre and sell them. He specifically mentioned that he sold a few artifacts to an artist friend, Pablo Picasso.

Coloured image of a young Pablo Picasso standing on a French street.
Pablo Picasso at Montmartre, place de Ravignan, Paris, c.1904. (Photo Credit: adoc-photos/Corbis/ Getty Images)

Picasso bought two Iberian statues from Pieret which came from the Louvre. He kept these in a cupboard in his city apartment. Pieret also sold similar items to Guillaume Apollinaire, who he readily threw under the bus in hopes of earning the reward for information on the Mona Lisa.

Black and white photo of Guillaume Apollinaire wearing a suit lying on a couch in his Paris apartment.
Guillaume Apollinaire lying on the divan at his home in Paris, 1909. (Photo Credit: Mondadori/ Getty Images)

Apollinaire was questioned by the authorities and named his association with Picasso. The two appeared before a judge and Picasso told the judge that he had never seen Apollinaire before, an obvious lie. The judge in their case eventually ruled that even though they possessed stolen art from the Louvre they did not steal the Mona Lisa, and he threw out their case. 

The real culprit is revealed

It eventually came to light that the thief was an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia. This officially cleared Picasso and Apollinaire of any association they may have had with the theft. Peruggia was able to steal the painting so easily because he was also a worker hired to help make the thick glass cases for many of the Louvre’s paintings which, obviously, included the Mona Lisa

Mug shot of Vincenzo Perugia, thief of the Mona Lisa, with personal details listed above and his finger prints below.
Mug shot of Vincenzo Peruggia, the Italian man who stole the Mona Lisa out of the Louvre Museum in Paris. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

He hid in a closet overnight wearing a painter’s smock, and then took the painting down the next morning and simply walked away with it. Some people say that he hid the painting under his smock, but this is unlikely due to the size of the painting. It’s more likely that he took off the smock and wrapped the painting in it.

Black and white image of a man standing in Vincenzo Perugia's room in Paris.
The room of Vincenzo Perugia in Paris. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

He hid the painting in his apartment in Paris for two years before returning to Italy. He then kept it in his apartment there before contacting a museum in Italy trying to sell it. The curator contacted one of his associates to authenticate the painting before they took it for safekeeping. The men contacted the police and were able to direct them to Peruggia, who was arrested in his hotel in December of 1913.

Theories on the theft

It’s not clear exactly why Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa, but there are a number of theories. Some people think that he wanted to bring the painting back to its homeland of Italy. This is what he claimed was the reason upon his arrest, as he believed that Napoleon Bonaparte had stolen the painting from the Italians.

Coloured painting of Napoleon Boneparte sitting on a rearing horse.
Painting of Napoleon Boneparte, now located in the Musee du Louvre, Paris, France. (Photo Credit: Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG/ Getty Images)

Other people believe that a man named Eduardo de Valfierno pushed Peruggia into the theft. He was a known con man who had hired art forger Yves Chaudron to make copies of the Mona Lisa which he could sell as the original only if the original went missing. However, there is some doubt about whether de Valfierno actually existed. 

Returned safe and sound

It is likely that Peruggia’s true rationale for the theft will never be known, but whether it was stolen for patriotic motives, or for more nefarious reasons, the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre in January of 1914. 

Group of men gather around a man holding the Mona Lisa in a frame after it was returned to the Louvre.
People gather around the Mona Lisa painting on January 4, 1914 in Paris, after it was returned. (Photo Credit: Roger-Viollet/ Getty Images)

More from us: Artist Pockets $84,000 From Museum… But Don’t Worry, It’s Art

In fact, it was this very theft that catapulted the Mona Lisa to the fame we see today. Until the theft, the Mona Lisa was not well known. For the two years it took to investigate the theft, the painting was featured in newspapers all over the world.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.