In Summary
  • Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of a 16th century Florentine noblewoman with an enigmatic smile ranks as one of the world's most instantly recognised images.
  • Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp scandalised the art world when he painted a moustache on a shoddy reproduction.

The heist happened in broad daylight. On August 21, 1911, a thief dressed in a white worker’s smock entered the Louvre, closed because it was a Monday.

In the Salon Carre, the Louvre’s gallery of Renaissance treasures, he lifted a small painting off the wall and removed its glass shadow box. Hiding the canvas under his smock, he then walked out into the streets of Paris with his loot. Twenty-six hours would pass before anyone noticed that the Mona Lisa had gone missing.

Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of a 16th century Florentine noblewoman with an enigmatic smile ranks as one of the world's most instantly recognised images. Singer Nat “King” Cole celebrated it in a 1950 pop hit.

SHODDY REPRODUCTION

Cartoonists have parodied it. Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp scandalised the art world when he painted a moustache on a shoddy reproduction.

This month the Louvre is mounting a major da Vinci exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of the artist's death. The museum is receiving huge crowds.

Da Vinci painted his masterpiece in 1507, but it was only in the 19th century that critics began to see the work as the pinnacle of Renaissance Florentine painting. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was not yet instantly recognisable.

In fact, when The Washington Post first reported the theft and appraised the painting’s value at $5 million, the paper mistakenly ran a picture of the Monna Vanna, a nude charcoal sketch that some believe da Vinci made in preparation to paint the Mona Lisa. The theft changed how the world saw the Mona Lisa.

The heist was discovered when a wealthy museum patron and amateur painter arrived at the Salon Carre to study “La Jaconde”, as the French call the Mona Lisa. Instead, he found a blank wall space.

The Louvre routinely removed art work for photographing so a guard thought nothing of the missing work. But after several hours, he alerted the staff.

THEFT

That evening police announced the theft. Georges Benedite, curator of the Louvre, told the press that only a practical joker would steal such a prized painting as it would be too difficult to fence. By contrast, the gendarmes believed the thief would demand a ransom within 48 hours. But two days passed and no one came forward.

The thief left behind very few clues. Security found a doorknob from the staircase outside the building. A plumber recalled helping a man who had taken off a doorknob while locked in the stairwell.

A guard found the wooden frame and glass covering box on a staircase. The frame had one thumb print. Paris police inspector Alphonse Bertillon, often credited with inventing the mug shot, believed in the new technique of fingerprinting.

However, he had 750,000 prints on file — too many to check. Instead, he fingerprinted the 257 Louvre employees who had been working that day.

Police distributed 6,500 leaflets with the painting's image and offered a 40,000 francs reward. Neighbours informed on neighbours. Co-workers informed on co-workers. Every lead led nowhere — though the museum did recover some stolen loot.

On September 7, police arrested the poet Guillaume Apollinaire on suspicion of involvement in the theft of the Mona Lisa and some Egyptian statuettes from the Louvre. The poet’s secretary, Géry Pieret, who was also a small-time art thief, had gone to the Paris-Journal newspaper after a falling-out with Apollinaire, claiming to have information on the Mona Lisa.

CLOSE FRIEND

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