In A Nutshell
In what has been dubbed “the greatest art theft of the 20th century,” an Italian thief by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia walked into the Louvre on August 21, 1911 and stole Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. He held the masterpiece for over two years, until he was arrested it while trying to sell it to an art dealer.
The Whole Bushel
On August 21, 1911, a plumber working in the Louvre Museum in Paris came across a man standing in front of a door, unable to open it because the doorknob was missing. The plumber, known only as Sauvet, used his key and a pair of pliers to open the door for the man, who was dressed in a white smock, the uniform of the Louvre’s maintenance staff. Unbeknownst to Sauvet, or anyone else for that matter, the unknown man had something very valuable hidden underneath his smock: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
No one was even aware of the theft until the next day because security was unbelievably lax, especially on a painting with the (then-insignificant) reputation of the Mona Lisa. (It was actually the theft that gave it the worldwide acclaim it now possesses.) A painter named Louis Beroud came to paint the Mona Lisa one day, and when he saw it wasn’t there, he asked around to see if anyone knew where it was. An alarm was raised when no one came forward. Police later found the glass box in a service stairway.
Immediately, a furor grew among the public and press as the days passed and no evidence was found—the police were seen as ineffectual. (Pablo Picasso was actually accused at one point and was interrogated by officers.) In addition, no one could even figure out a motive for the theft. In the words of the assistant curator, Monsieur Benedite: “Why the theft was committed is a mystery to me, as I consider the picture valueless in the hands of a private individual.”
After two years of silence, a man calling himself “Leonardo” contacted Alfredo Geri, an art dealer in Florence, Italy. The author of the letter claimed to have the Mona Lisa and stated his motive was to return the painting to da Vinci’s homeland. After further communication, Geri convinced “Leonardo” to bring the painting to Florence, with an agreement that he would receive 500,000 lire for his effort. The police were brought in and “Leonardo” was revealed to be Vincenzo Peruggia, a house painter (with a little secret ambition in life).
Peruggia was taken to jail and remained there until his trial on June 4, 1914. Many people were disappointed in the revealed identity of the art thief, because he had been romanticized by the public. After a lengthy trial, Peruggia was only sentenced to one year and 15 days in jail, which was later reduced to seven months and nine days—a small price to pay for the greatest art theft of the 20th century.