THE MOST FAMOUS ART HEIST YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
Meet the Man Who Stole the ‘Mona Lisa’
One hundred and nine years ago this month, one man — or was it three? — fled from the Louvre Museum in Paris, carrying what would quickly become the world’s most famous painting: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” Historical accounts of the theft agree only on who was the ringleader: 30-year-old Louvre handyman Vincenzo Peruggia. He was a house painter, an immigrant, the bearer of a glorious Monopoly Man mustache, and a vehement Italian patriot. At some point on the morning of Aug. 21, 1911, Peruggia lifted the glass case he himself had constructed to house the “Mona Lisa” and smuggled the painting from the building. Some versions of the story say Peruggia was assisted by two brothers, fellow Italian handymen Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti. NPR reports the trio spent the night preceding the theft huddled in one of the Louvre’s supply closets, lying in wait to steal the portrait. In his documentary about the theft, director Joe Medeiros claims Peruggia acted alone, driven by an obsession with the work and a dream of returning the painting to Italy.
Either way, we know that Peruggia successfully spirited the painting back to his one-bedroom apartment. There it lay concealed in a false- bottomed trunk for more than two years. This period of mysterious absence (during which police grilled and dismissed Peruggia as a suspect in favor of J.P. Morgan, Pablo Picasso, and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire) is what made the “Mona Lisa” world famous. Peruggia was eventually caught attempting to sell the painting in Italy. He pleaded guilty and spent eight months in jail. After his release, he enlisted in the Italian army to fight in World War I, surviving the war only to die of a heart attack on his 44th birthday. Though Peruggia married after the war, some suspect that the true love of his life was the “Mona Lisa” herself. In a CNN article, author and art history professor Noah Charney speculates that over his two years with her, Peruggia developed romantic feelings for the portrait. Perhaps he fell victim to a kind of “reverse Stockholm syndrome,” Charney suggests, the captor falling in love with his hostage. “In this case,” he says, “the hostage was a work of art.”
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