On This Day: The Mona Lisa theft which made it world famous

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·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·3-min read
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PARIS - 1914:  Two men carry the painting of the Mona Lisa back to the Louvre circa 1914 in Paris, France. Vincenzo Peruggia perpetrated what has been described as the greatest art theft of the 20th century. (Photo by Roger-Viollet/Getty Images)
Two men carry the Mona Lisa back to the Louvre museum in Paris on 4 January, 1914, just over two years after it was stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia. (Getty Images)

It’s one of the most famous art thefts in history.

But when it happened 110 years ago, the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre museum in Paris barely registered with the wider world.

At the time, it was mainly art aficionados who were aware of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.

It was only its discovery, two years later, which truly brought it into mainstream consciousness and ultimately its status today as the world's most famous painting.

The police record of Vincenzo Peruggia who attempted to steal Leonardo de Vinci's painting 'The Mona Lisa' in 1911, 25th January 1909. (Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
The police record of Vincenzo Peruggia, who stole the Mona Lisa. (Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

On 21 August, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen by Italian carpenter Vincenzo Peruggia, who was carrying out repairs at the Louvre, which was closed on that day.

Prof Donald Sassoon, who chronicled the Mona Lisa in his 2001 book The History of the World's Most Famous Painting, tells Yahoo News UK: “He decided to steal the Mona Lisa not because it was then the most famous painting, but because it was small – and he was a small man.

"His favourite painting was by Andrea Mantegna, but it was much bigger.”

The Mona Lisa, which was painted on a wood panel, is 77cm by 55cm.


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Prof Sassoon continues: “He removed the wood from the frame and he just left and went home to his bedsit. He kept it there for a couple of years, he didn’t know what to do with it.

“He kept it next to the stove, and because it’s a piece of wood it warped a bit, but otherwise it was OK.

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“It was a big story because it was stolen in August. Nothing happens in August, normally. So the press, especially the French and English popular press, picked up the story.

“But even then, it was not widely regarded. The connoisseurs knew about it, but it was before the age of tourism.”

Then a few weeks later, the prime minister of Russia, Pyotr Stolypin, was assassinated. “So the story moved on.”

By the time Peruggia took it to Florence, Italy, in 1913, the Mona Lisa had “more or less been forgotten,” Prof Sassoon says.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 19: Visitors observe the painting 'La Joconde' The Mona Lisa by Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci on display in a gallery at Louvre on May 19, 2021 in Paris, France. The country is taking steps to ease the lockdown measures that President Emmanuel Macron announced on April 29, allowing all the museums and non-essential shops and cultural venues to open and rolling back the curfew to 9pm. The cafe and restaurant terraces can also open to 50% capacity. France is reporting a seven-day average of around 14,000 new Covid-19 cases. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)
The Mona Lisa is now one of the most famous paintings in the world – partly thanks to its theft in 1911 and discovery in 1913. (Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)

It was ultimately found when he wrote to a Florence art dealer claiming to have the painting. The dealer alerted Giovanni Poggi, the director of the city’s Uffizi gallery. Poggi alerted the police, and Peruggia was arrested.

The discovery is truly “what made the Mona Lisa well known,” Prof Sassoon says.

It was so major that it toured Italy before being brought back to France on a train in January 1914. A crowd of people was even waiting for it.

FLORENCE - 1914:  In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia perpetrated what has been described as the greatest art theft of the 20th century. The former Louvre worker walked into the museum one day and, noticing the room containing the Mona Lisa had no guards or visitors, took the painting off its pegs, removed it from the frame, and walked out of the Louvre with it under his arm.  Peruggia is shown in the courtroom in Florence, in June of 1914. (Photo by Albert Harlingue/Roger-Viollet/Getty Images)
Vincenzo Peruggia in court in Florence in June 1914. (Getty Images)

Peruggia, meanwhile, got six months in jail.

Prof Sassoon laughs: “He claimed he was doing it out of nationalism and wanted to give the painting back to his motherland, or some nonsense like that.

“He had his quarter of an hour of fame, but otherwise he was a normal carpenter."

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