The Theft That Made The 'Mona Lisa' A Masterpiece

Originally published on November 25, 2015 3:43 pm

If you were standing outside the Louvre in Paris on the morning of Aug. 21, 1911, you might have noticed three men hurrying out of the museum.

They would have been pretty conspicuous on a quiet Monday morning, writer and historian James Zug tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "Sunday night was a big social night in Paris," he says, "so a lot of people were hung over on Monday morning."

The men, three Italian handymen, were not hungover. But they might have been a little tired. They'd just spent the night in an art-supply closet.

And on that morning, with the Louvre still closed, they slipped out of the closet and lifted 200 pounds of painting, frame and protective glass case off the wall. Stripped of its frame and case, the wooden canvas was covered with a blanket and hustled off to the Quai d'Orsay station, where the trio boarded a 7:47 a.m. express train out of the city.

They'd stolen the "Mona Lisa."

Famous, Overnight

Before its theft, the "Mona Lisa" was not widely known outside the art world. Leonardo da Vinci painted it in 1507, but it wasn't until the 1860s that critics began to hail it as a masterwork of Renaissance painting. And that judgment didn't filter outside a thin slice of French intelligentsia.

"The 'Mona Lisa' wasn't even the most famous painting in its gallery, let alone in the Louvre," Zug says.

Dorothy and Tom Hoobler wrote about the painting's heist in their book, The Crimes of Paris. It was 28 hours, they say, until anyone even noticed the four bare hooks.

The guy who noticed was a pushy still-life artist who set up his easel to paint that gallery in the Louvre.

"He felt he couldn't work as long as the 'Mona Lisa' wasn't there," Tom Hoobler says.

But the artist wasn't alarmed. At that time, there was a project under way to photograph the Louvre's many works. Each piece had to be taken to the roof, since cameras of the day did not work well inside.

"So finally he persuaded a guard to go see how long the photographers were going to have the painting," Tom Hoobler says. "He went off and came back, and said, 'You know what, the photographers say they don't have it!' "

All of a sudden, James Zug says, "the 'Mona Lisa' becomes this incredibly famous painting — literally overnight."

Mark of Shame

After the Louvre announced the theft, newspapers all over the world ran headlines about the missing masterpiece.

"60 Detectives Seek Stolen 'Mona Lisa,' French Public Indignant," the New York Times declared. The heist had become something of a national scandal.

"In France, there was a great deal of concern that American millionaires were buying up the legacy of France — the best paintings," Dorothy Hoobler says. At one point, American tycoon and art lover J.P. Morgan was suspected of commissioning the theft. Pablo Picasso was also considered a suspect, and was questioned.

And as tensions were escalating between France and Germany ahead of World War I, "there were people who thought the Kaiser was behind it," Hoobler says.

After a weeklong shutdown, the Louvre re-opened to mobs of people, Franz Kafka among them, all rushing to see the empty spot that had become a "mark of shame" for Parisians.

Meanwhile, the thieves had made a clean getaway. They were three Italians: two brothers, Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti, and the ringleader, Vincenzo Perugia. He was a handyman who had worked for the Louvre to install the very same protective glass cases he had ripped from the "Mona Lisa."

Perugia hoped to sell the painting. But the heist had received so much attention that the "Mona Lisa" became too hot to hock, Zug says.

"Within days, newspapers were offering rewards. [Perugia] could have brought it in, but I think the main reason he didn't do that is he was worried about being arrested — and that the story was so big that he probably didn't think he could get away with it."

So Perugia stashed it in the false bottom of a trunk in his Paris boardinghouse.

A Masterpiece Returned

Twenty-eight months after he snatched it from the Louvre, Perugia finally made a pass at selling the "Mona Lisa" to an art dealer in Florence.

But the dealer was suspicious. He had the head of an Italian art gallery come take a look at the painting.

A stamp on the back confirmed its authenticity.

"They said, 'OK, leave it with us, and we'll see that you get a reward,'" Tom Hoobler says. Perugia went back home. But half an hour later, to his surprise, the police were at his door.

"He said later that he was trying to return it to Italy — that he was a patriot and it was stolen by Napoleon — and he was trying to return it to the land of his birth," James Zug says.

And so, with much fanfare, the painting was returned to the Louvre. Perugia pleaded guilty to stealing it, and was sentenced to just eight months in prison.

But a few days after his trial, Dorothy Hoobler says, World War I broke out. Suddenly, the drama of an art heist was off the front pages.

"This seemed like a very small story," she says.

James Zug recently wrote about the Mona Lisa for the Smithsonian Magazine.

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GUY RAZ, host: If you've ever been to the Louvre in Paris, you may have wondered why one painting there, the "Mona Lisa," is the most famous in the world. Why that one? Well, it has to do in large part to something that happened almost 100 years ago.


RAZ: August 21, 1911, about 7 a.m. on a quiet, humid Paris morning.


RAZ: And if you were standing on a side street outside the Louvre, you might have seen three men hurrying out.


JAMES ZUG: It was sort of back to the working week. And Sunday nights was a big social night in Paris at the time, so a lot of people were hungover on Monday morning.

RAZ: That's James Zug. He's a writer and historian. He says there weren't very many people around to notice that one of those three men had a bulge, a large bulge in his jacket.


RAZ: They had stolen the "Mona Lisa."

DOROTHY HOOBLER: OK. Well, I'm Dorothy Hoobler. I write books with my husband.

TOM HOOBLER: We've done that. And this is Tom Hoobler. We've written almost 100 books together.

RAZ: Dorothy and Tom tell this story in a book "The Crimes of Paris." Now, that Monday morning was a holiday, so the Louvre was closed. Only cleaning staff were allowed in.

HOOBLER: Now, the cleaning staff, for some reason, all wore white smocks, similar to artists' smocks.

RAZ: Which is why the previous day no one in the museum paid much attention to the three Italian men dressed in those smocks. One of them was Vincenzo Perugia.

ZUG: He had been part of a team that the Louvre had contracted out to put a glass box on the Mona Lisa.

RAZ: A glass box to protect the painting from thieves. Historian James Zug says on Sunday night, the night before the heist...

ZUG: When the museum was closing, they went into a storeroom right near the gallery where the "Mona Lisa" was hung.

RAZ: They slept inside the storeroom that night, and then early Monday morning, they slipped out and the "Mona Lisa," just hanging there on a few hooks.

HOOBLER: Four hooks, in this case.

RAZ: And the thieves took their time.

HOOBLER: Coolly waited until nobody was around.

RAZ: And then...

HOOBLER: Lifted the painting...


HOOBLER: ...right off the wall.

RAZ: They ditched the heavy case in the frame and walked out with Leonardo's masterpiece. It was heavy. The "Mona Lisa" was painted on a piece of wood. The thieves hid it under a blanket. When people went to visit the Louvre at the time, is the first thing they did was to make a beeline to the "Mona Lisa," like they do today, like I've done?

ZUG: Right. The first time I did it, I did as well. I sort of did. Back then, nobody would have made a beeline for the "Mona Lisa." The "Mona Lisa" wasn't even the most famous painting in its gallery, let alone in the museum.

RAZ: Not until Tuesday, more than 24 hours later, did the Louvre announce the painting was missing. And all of a sudden...

ZUG: The "Mona Lisa" becomes this incredibly famous painting literally overnight.


HOOBLER: Oh, it was sensational. It was a huge story.

ZUG: All the newspapers come out with big headlines about this.

HOOBLER: People coming forward, claiming they knew who the thief was.

RAZ: And Dorothy Hoobler says there were conspiracy theories.

HOOBLER: In France, there was a great deal of concern that American millionaires were buying up the legacy of France, the best paintings.

RAZ: J.P. Morgan was a suspect, so was Picasso. He was arrested and questioned by police.


RAZ: For more than two years, the "Mona Lisa" sat at the bottom of a trunk in a tiny room at a boarding house in Paris where Perugia was staying, until finally, two and a half years later, he boarded a train to Florence with the "Mona Lisa." And in Florence, Perugia tried to sell it to an art dealer.

HOOBLER: The dealer didn't know whether to believe it or not because there were always false reports of it showing up, and people were beginning to think that whoever had taken it had either destroyed it or it was in some collection and it would never appear again.

RAZ: So the dealer called in an expert, a local gallery director, who recognized the distinctive stamp on the back of the painting.


RAZ: It was the real thing.

HOOBLER: And so they said, OK. Leave it with us, and we'll see that you get a reward. And he went back to his hotel room, trusting, leaving it with them and, you know, half an hour later, the police were at the door and he said he was very surprised.


RAZ: The "Mona Lisa" went back to the Louvre. Perugia pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight months in jail. But the story was off the front pages pretty quickly. A few days after Perugia's trial, World War I broke out.

ZUG: It's a pretty incredible story. And, you know, everybody's heard of the painting, of course, but nobody knew sort of the history of it and especially this moment that made it such an iconic painting.


RAZ: That's writer and historian James Zug. His article on the "Mona Lisa" appears in the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine. We also spoke with Tom and Dorothy Hoobler. Their book is called "The Crimes of Paris."


NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you. You're so like the lady with the misfit smile. Is it only...

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