Friday 23 November 2012

The Mona Lisa Caper

Photo courtesy

"It is the best known, most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world."

On August 21, 1911, an employee at the Louvre Musee in Paris noticed that there were only four pegs on the wall where the Mona Lisa had hung for five years.  The Paris Police were immediately called and 60 investigators were dispatched.  Despite the attention it received, it would take the Paris Police over two years to get back their precious "objet d'art".

The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506.  For years it hung in the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy.  However, during the Napoleonic wars, the dictator took the famous painting to France where it hung in his bedroom.  In 1804, it was placed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.  Some Italians, however, never forgot Napoleon's theft of the painting and felt it belonged in Italy, including a man named Vincenzo Perugia.

Signor Perugia used to admire the Mona Lisa when he worked as a carpenter at the Paris Museum in 1908.  He built a protective case for the painting so that visitors couldn't damage it.  Although his work ended at the museum, he never forgot about the famous painting.  On a Monday when the Louvre was closed to visitors, he decided that he would act.  He entered the museum, unlocked the case, removed the painting and took it into a stairwell where he removed the frame.  Then he left the Louvre with the art treasure wrapped in a painters smock tucked under his arm.

Photo of empty space on wall at the Louvre circa 1911 courtesy 

For months, the Mona Lisa sat in Vincenzo's Paris apartment, no one the wiser.  However, one day someone started to suspect that the painting was nearby and Signor Perugia started to worry he would be discovered.

An antique art dealer named Alredo Geri put an ad in the paper looking for "objets d'art".  He received a response to his ad from a man named "Leonardo Vincenzo" saying that he would meet him in Italy with the painting.  He packed it in his car and motored out of Paris.  Over the rolling hills and past the sculptured evergreen trees went the Mona Lisa on its way "home" according to its captor.

The two gentlemen met in Milan at the appointed time and "Leonardo" offered him the Mona Lisa for half a million lire.  A condition of the sale would be that the painting would be hung in the Uffizi.  Signor Geri agreed to the sale and when it took place, the police were there to arrest the thief of the Mona Lisa.

For a few weeks the painting was displayed in Italy, but then it was returned to France on December 30, 1913.  Vincenzo Perugia served several months in jail for his crime.  However, many Italians did not see him as a criminal but as a patriot, rewarding him with so many gifts (food, wine, clothing, furniture) that he had to be moved to a bigger cell to fit all of his belongings.

The Mona Lisa still hangs in the Louvre today.  However, in 1963, President and Mrs. Kennedy had the honour of hosting the painting for a short time in Washington D.C.

Note:  Read the picture book The Mona Lisa Caper by Rick Jacobson.

President & Mrs. Kennedy with the Mona Lisa circa 1963 courtesy 

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