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Art's Great Whodunit: The Mona Lisa Theft of 1911

Mona Lisa was always deemed as different from other art works even at the beginning of the 20
century before mass reproductions, package tours to France and The Da Vinci Code . The
woman with her enigmatic smile received so many love letters that her portrait was the only
artwork at the Louvre to have its own mailbo. !t was also reported that a heartbroken suitor once
shot himself to death in front of her.
Therefore, it was no surprise when somebody finally eloped with her. "n the morning of 2#
$ug in #%##, Mona Lisa arguably the world&s most famous art piece was stolen from the
Louvre. The 'uestions of who, how and why are all part of the story told in two new books this
spring. Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa written by (.$. )cotti sticks closely
to the case and relates it luuriously. !n places it reads like a prose poem with narrative gallop.
The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection by *orothy and Thomas
+oobler embeds the theft within more workmanlike prose and the larger story of how ,aris police
were struggling in the early 20th century against a world of gangsters and anarchists.
-nfortunately, the authors of both books have decided to pad out their tets by resurrecting an
utterly unsubstantiated version of who might have been behind the heist.
The narrative of the theft begins in the early morning hours of a .onday morning, before the
Louvre was opened for visitors. Mona Lisa was stolen by a thief who acted 'uickly when no
guards were around. The theft did not even come to light until the net day. The guards who
noticed that the painting was missing assumed it had been removed to be photographed. "nce
museum officials realised the truth, the Louvre was shut down. ,olice arrived to 'uestion the
staff, re/enact the crime and dust for fingerprints, a new crime/fighting techni'ue in those days.
The French border was sealed and the departing ships and trains searched. 0y the time the
museum re/opened nine days later, the theft was front/page news around the world. Tips were
pouring in from amateur detectives, nutty professors and clairvoyants. Thousands of people lined
up at the Louvre 1ust to see the empty spot where the painting once hung. $mong them was
Fran2 3afka, who was visiting ,aris and whose cameo in this story, of course, makes it all the
more 3afkaes'ue.
$ little more than a week after the robbery, the plot thickened considerably when a mysterious
character got in touch with Paris-Journal, a newspaper that was offering a reward for information
about the crime. )oon, the man showed up at the newspaper&s offices with a small statue, one of
several that he claimed to have stolen four years earlier from the Louvre. The anonymous thief
turned out to be a biseual con man named +onor4 5oseph 64ry ,ieret. +e had once served as
secretary, and perhaps other roles, for 6uillaume $pollinaire, the poet and art/world polemicist
who was ,icasso&s constant supporter in the public skirmishes over modern art in the French
press. 0efore long, ,ieret had implicated $pollinaire in the thefts. 7hen police arrested
$pollinaire, he admitted under pressure that ,ieret had sold the pilfered works to none other than
,icasso. The cops then dragged ,icasso before a magistrate for 'uestioning with the thought
that they had found their way into a crime ring that might be behind the Mona Lisa case.
,icasso, who at 2% had 1ust begun the transition from bohemia to the haute bourgeoisie, was
terrified. +e was a foreigner in France. $s a conse'uence, any serious trouble with the law could
get him deported. This could further gotten serious, because the accusation was true. Four years
earlier, he had bought from ,ieret two of the pilfered sculptures, (oman/era !berian heads whose
thick features and wide eyes he would introduce into the great painting he was then 1ust about to
embark upon, Les Demoiselles d'Ai!non. 8venthough he would deny it in court, he almost
certainly knew at the time that both heads were lifted from the Louvre. +e may even have pushed
,ieret to take them in the first place. +owever, the prosecutors could not build a case that either
,icasso or $pollinaire had stolen the heads, much less the Mona Lisa, and both of them went
$fter that, for years the trail went cold. Mona Lisa was reported to have been shipped to
)wit2erland or )outh $merica. )he was in an apartment in the 0ron, a private gallery in )t.
,etersburg or a secret room in the mansion of 5.,. .organ. !n fact, she had never left ,aris. The
thief turned out to be 9incen2o ,eruggia the +ooblers spell it ,erugia an !talian house
painter and carpenter living in France, eventhough he was arrested for the crime in *ecember
#%#: in Florence. +e had gone there with the painting after contacting a Florentine art dealer,
$lfredo 6eri, who he hoped would help him dispose of his hostage in a way that would bring him
some cash. 6eri played along, and even brought in the *irector of the -ffi2i 6allery to
authenticate the picture on the spot. 7hen they were satisfied that ,eruggia had brought them
the real thing, they turned him over to the police.
The whole episode proved embarrassing for France. ,eruggia had escaped the dragnet of
French police, despite the fact that he had once worked at the Louvre, knew the eits and escape
routes and had even helped build the glass/enclosed frame Mona Lisa was displayed in so on
the fateful morning he knew how to get her out of it 'uickly. Then he spirited her back to his
shabby apartment and flung her like ,atty +earst into a dark closet, which is where she remained
for more than two years.
Though there&s evidence that ,eruggia tried repeatedly to sell the picture, he always insisted that
his only motive in stealing Mona Lisa was to return it in glory to !taly and to eact revenge for
;apoleon&s massive theft of artworks all across 8urope. "ne problem< Mona Lisa had never been
part of the ;apoleonic plunder. 8venthough Leonardo had begun the painting in Florence in
#=0:, he took it with him to France #: years later when he resettled at the court of the French
3ing Fran>ois !. $fter his death there in #=#%, the painting passed through several hands until an
eager Fran>ois bought it for the modern e'uivalent of around ?#0 million.
,eruggia&s patriotic rationale made him a hero in the !talian press, but it did not persuade an
!talian 1ury, which convicted him in $ugust #%#@. +is sentence was reduced to time served.
8ventually he moved back to France and opened a paint store in +aute/)avoie. Mona Lisa
meanwhile was permitted by France to go on a triumphal tour of !taly before she returned home.
8venthough no one doubts that it was ,eruggia who actually stole the painting, to this day there
are 'uestions as to whether he had help that night or if he was working for bigger operators. This
is where both books dive headfirst into a huge pile of baloney. !n #%:2 a swashbuckling $merican
1ournalist named 3arl *ecker published a piece in the Saturday "enin! Post, in which he wrote
that in #%#@ in .orocco, he met an aristocratic con man, .ar'u4s 8duardo de 9alfierno, who told
him that he had masterminded the theft as part of a scheme to sell si meticulously forged
versions of Mona Lisa to si gullible millionaires. 8ach would be duped into believing he had
secretly bought the picture that had 1ust been famously stolen from the Louvre. 0ut in order to
carry out the scam, it was necessary to pull off a highly publici2ed theft of the real picture. *e
9alfierno claimed that the scheme netted him millions, and that ,eruggia has been well paid for
his part, but had kept the original, thinking he could sell that too.
$ll of this is fun to imagine, but garbage. $lmost a century after the crime, none of the si alleged
copies has turned up. *id de 9alfierno even eist, or was he a fiction created by *ecker in his
declining years to sell a maga2ine storyA 7ho knows, but all these years later, authors with a
book to market still play footsie with *ecker&s wholly unsubstantiated story. The +ooblers retell
the *ecker tale in their last chapter, then lamely attach a disclaimer< BThere is no eternal
confirmation for it. Cet it has fre'uently been assumed to be true by authors writing about the
case.B 0ut naturally when their book was ecerpted in Vanity #air this month, it was the *ecker
story that occupied most of the ecerpt, with the +ooblers& shrugging disclaimer tacked at the
end. ;o matter, within days a blog on the $oston %erald website was reporting that the +oobler&s
book BrevealsB that de 9alfierno commissioned the theft.
7hat )cotti does with the story is no better. )he opens Vanished Smile with the .ar'u4s arriving
in the -.). to peddle his forgeries, a gimmick that will lead unsuspecting readers to suppose that
this imaginary character will somehow turn out to be the real man behind the crime. 0ut the
.ar'u4s disappears from her book until the final chapter, where )cotti lays out *ecker&s account
and then details the reasons why it&s probably hooey.
)cotti is right about one thing. The huge publicity surrounding the theft helped to launch
Leonardo&s great painting into the stratosphere of fame. BMona Lisa left the Louvre a work of art,B
)cotti writes. B)he returned an icon.B Truer to say she returned a pop/culture celebrity, the kind
who&s helpless to stop the world from spreading loose talk about her. That&s a temptation neither
of these books was able to resist.
Reading Passage 1