In a previous post (October 1, 2015), I wrote about art restitution—countries demanding return of art and artifacts presumably stolen. A hundred years ago or so, this is how restitution worked: you simply stole the work from the museum.
The Mona Lisa (Italian: Monna Lisa o La Gioconda; French: La Joconde) is a portrait of a woman by Leonardo da Vinci, which has been acclaimed as “the best known, most visited, most parodied work of art in the world.” It was painted between 1503 and 1506; Leonardo then took it with him to Paris around 1516 when he was invited to work there by King Francois I. Contrary to popular belief, it was not stolen by Napoleon and his troops. Supposedly Leonardo’s pupil and assistant, Salaì, inherited the painting on Leonardo’s death. Then the King bought the painting for 4,000 ècus and kept it at the Palace of Fontainebleau, where it remained until Louis XIV moved the painting to the Palace of Versailles. After the French Revolution, it was moved to the Louvre. It did spend a brief period in the bedroom of Napoleon in the Tuileries Palace.
The painting might have lived in relative obscurity if it had not been stolen in 1911. A painter that day in August went to the Salon Carrè in the Louvre where the Mona Lisa had been on display. However, where the Mona Lisa should have appeared, he found four iron pegs. The guards thought that the painting had been removed for photographic reasons. Not so. The Louvre was closed for a week to work on the investigation of the theft.
French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louvre to be “burnt down”, came under suspicion; he was arrested and imprisoned. Apollinaire tried to implicate his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning, but both were later exonerated.
It was two years before the real thief was discovered. Ex-Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia had stolen it by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a storage closet and calmly walking out with it hidden under his coat after the museum had closed. He kept it in a suitcase under his bed in his Paris apartment.
Peruggia was an Italian patriot who believed that Leonardo’s painting should be returned to Italy. (He mistakenly thought that the work had been stolen during the Napoleonic pillage.) After about two years, Peruggia grew impatient. He took the painting to Italy, and he was finally caught when he attempted to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
It was exhibited all over Italy and returned to the Louvre in 1913. Peruggia was hailed for his patriotism in Italy and served 6 months in jail for his crime.