Missing Mona Lisa

It’s a perfectly stereotypical French tale involving an August holiday, a famous artist, a renowned investigator and an ill-advised cigarette break. But before you cue Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme,” here’s the real story about how Mona Lisa was removed from the Louvre in Paris and how she remained missing for over two years.

On August 22, 1911, the French painter, Louis Béroud, made his way to the Louvre and arrived at the site where Mona Lisa should have been, in order to begin an artistic representation of the viewing area. Reportedly, his goal was to paint a different sort of portrait; he was after a reflection of one of Mona Lisa’s admirers in the glass that protected her from the public. In an ironic twist, when Béroud arrived at the spot, the protective glass remained, but the iconic painting was nowhere to be found.

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Béroud reported the disappearance to Louvre guards in the area, many of whom had noticed Mona Lisa’s absence already. In fact, one guard noted that she was out of place on the previous day. However, he simply assumed she had been removed to be photographed, a relatively common occurrence at the museum. However, with the Louvre’s director on vacation, the museum’s on goings were a bit muddled. Upon a bit of investigation, it was found that there was no photography scheduled and that Mona Lisa was, indeed, missing.

Immediate action was taken. The Louvre was closed to visitors, France’s borders were sealed and a distinguished fingerprint expert, Alphonse Bertillon, was called to the scene to investigate what was beginning to look like the biggest art heist of the 20th century.

After a team of over 60 detectives completed a week’s worth of investigation, very little was known about Mona Lisa’s whereabouts, but Numerous details about how the painting was stolen were placed together. Apparently, the guard who generally oversaw Mona Lisa was at home with a sick child. His replacement, in the midst of his shift, left the painting unattended when he stepped out for a cigarette. It was determined that the painting must have been taken, very quickly, in the ten to fifteen minutes that the guard had left his post unmanned.

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In the absence of a proper suspect, false accusations flew through France quicker than the Mistral. In fact, even Pablo Picasso was questioned in the disappearance. While it was found that Picasso might have had some minor, shady dealings with known art thieves, he knew absolutely nothing about Mona Lisa’s disappearance.

Eventually, the dust settled and the world moved on as Mona Lisa seemed to have been permanently lost. That is until December of 1913, when Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian carpenter who had lived in France, emerged in Florence in possession of Mona Lisa. Reportedly, Peruggia’s grand plan was not motivated – at least not entirely – by the prospect of financial gain. Though he did request a substantial sum in exchange for the portrait, Peruggia claimed to have wanted da Vinci’s masterpiece returned to Italy, where, in his opinion, it belonged.

Upon getting in touch with Uffizi curators in an effort to place the portrait on display within the Italian museum, Peruggia was promptly arrested. Part of his plan did come to fruition, however, as Mona Lisa was chauffeured all around Italy before her return to the Louvre.

In the aftermath of Peruggia’s arrest, little more about the robbery was definitively determined. But the story goes that Peruggia had done carpentry work at the Louvre prior to the evening of August 21, when he pilfered Mona Lisa. He was a familiar face around the museum, and gained access without causing any suspicion. When he noted that the painting was left unattended, he seized the opportunity to grab the portrait and hide it under his painter’s smock before casually fleeing the scene. As for the painting’s whereabouts over the next two years: it remained in Peruggia’s apartment, collecting dust in a closet.

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There you have it. No elaborate scheme. No grand heist; simply an Italian national who took advantage of a perfect storm of happenstance to remove one of the most famous works of art from one of the most iconic museums in the world. Thankfully, Mona Lisa has since resided safely in her home at the Louvre, playfully smirking at us all, perhaps because only she knows all of the details surrounding her infamous disappearance.

See what’s behind the smile for yourself and visit Mona Lisa on a Paris extension on any one of VBT’s French vacations.