With the new movie The Monuments Men hitting theatres nationwide tomorrow, I thought I’d delve into the story of how a famous piece of art was at one time stolen.
As educational tours to France increase in popularity, the world’s most iconic museum sees an influx in visitors. Home to the world’s most famous portrait, The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, the Louvre was the site of a terrible theft during the 20th century.
On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen right off the wall!
It was such an inconceivable crime that the renowned piece of art wasn’t discovered missing until the following morning. Who would steal such a painting? What was the motivation behind the culprit’s wrongdoing? Would the Mona Lisa be returned or lost forever? These questions and many more came to light as an investigation began.
On the morning of August 22, 1911, Louis Béroud, an artist, arrived at the Louvre to paint the Mona Lisa. To his astonishment only four iron pegs greeted him where the painting had once hung. Béroud’s concern was dismissed by the guard saying it was probably being photographed or having restoration work done. As the hours passed and he became more worried and impatient, he persuaded the guard to see where it was. When the guard returned he was pale in the face. That’s when panic began to set in. The painting wasn’t there. Furthermore, the museum was closed the previous day so no one had seen it since Sunday.
The only conclusion was that it had been stolen!
By the early afternoon, numerous inspectors and officers had arrived at the Louvre to search every nook and cranny. The doors were locked; guards were stationed at every entrance, and everyone who was inside questioned.
No one knew anything.
The museum remained closed for an entire week. Inspector Louis Lepine, Prefect of Paris Police, took charge of the investigation and reviewed all pieces of information and the little evidence found at the scene. From this he was able to piece together a reconstruction of the theft, but it led to no leads of who may have committed such a crime. While this was happening, word of the theft spread like wildfire around the city of Paris leading to the beginning of people’s fascination with this famed piece of art. Rewards were offered up to 40,000 Francs for anyone who knew the whereabouts of the Mona Lisa.
Two years later, on December 12, 1913, the painting was found in a hotel room in Florence, Italy. Former Louvre worker Vincenzo Peruggia was immediately arrested and sent to prison where he served fourteen months. He confessed to stealing the painting by hiding in the museum on Sunday fully aware that it would be closed the following day. On Monday morning, wearing his Louvre uniform, he hid the Mona Lisa and walked out the doors unquestioned. When asked what motivated him to steal the painting, Peruggia explained that he was acting out of patriotic motivations. He wanted to return what was once stolen by Napoleon to his home country.
And so the case was closed and the Mona Lisa was safely returned to its home at the Louvre.
While it’s the world’s most famous painting, only but a few know the story of when it was stolen. Shrouded in mystery, the Mona Lisa single-handedly makes a visit to the Louvre a must stop on any educational tour to Paris. Not only is it amazing to see the painting up close and personal with your own eyes, but it’s amazing to see the allure it still has on large groups of people. It may not be the grandest painting or the most influential, but you can’t doubt its popularity. Whether she’s front and center in a bestselling novel or the subject of endless debate, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa will continue to entice and enthrall visitors for years to come like no other piece of art can.
I hope you’ll check back as I look at the extraordinary efforts of the Monuments Men during WWII.