21 August 1911: The Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre

On this day in 1911, Italian outcast Vincenzo Perrugia slipped out of a cupboard at the Louvre and made off with the Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa – femme fatale. Men idolised her; poets and painters paid homage to her beauty and sent love letters to her upmarket Paris address; one besotted admirer even stood before her in 1910 and put a gun to his head. His eyes fixed on her enigmatic smile, he pulled the trigger.

Lisa del Giocondo sat for Leonardo da Vinci early in the 16th century, and on the painter's death, French king Francis I bought the painting for 4,000 gold crowns around £9m today. Following the French Revolution, La Joconde as the painting is also known, moved to the Louvre.

Vincenzo Perrugia, an Italian outcast who felt spurned by his Parisian colleagues, knew he had to have her. She was the ultimate prize. He "fell in love with her", as he later confessed from jail. On the morning of 21 August 1911, Perrugia slipped out of the cupboard where he'd spent the night. Still wearing his gallery handyman's garb, he unhooked the painting and walked out with the Mona Lisa concealed beneath his clothes.

The theft sparked a media frenzy. The Mona Lisa's face was splashed over all the European newspapers and on posters and chocolate boxes too, becoming ingrained in the public consciousness. People even queued up at the gallery to see the empty space on the wall.

Suspicion first fell on a disgruntled poet called Guillaume Apollinaire, and then on his painter friend, the young Pablo Picasso. In fact, Picasso was sitting on some statues, also stolen from the Louvre, which he used for his cubist work, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The pair eventually got off. Then, for almost two years, the trail went cold.

During this time, Perrugia lived in his Paris flat, shacked up with the Mona Lisa spread out over his kitchen table. After several abortive attempts to sell the painting, he finally took it to Alfredo Geri, an art dealer in Florence. Geri and his contacts at the Uffizi authenticated the stolen Mona Lisa and contacted the police.

In his defence, Perrugia said he had wanted to return the painting to Italy, believing it to have been plundered by Napoleon. But he failed to fool the jury, and he was sentenced to just over a year in jail, later commuted to seven months.

The Mona Lisa did a tour of Italy in 1913 before returning home to Paris. There she resides to this day, beguiling the millions of tourists who flock to see her.

Recommended

25 September 1237: The English-Scottish border is set in law
This day in history

25 September 1237: The English-Scottish border is set in law

The border between England and Scotland – having been fluid for many years – was legally defined on this day in 1237 (barring the odd skirmish over Be…
25 Sep 2020
25 September 1996: the Taliban reach Kabul
This day in history

25 September 1996: the Taliban reach Kabul

After the end of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, the Taliban reached the suburbs of the capital, Kabul, on this day in 1996.
25 Sep 2020
24 September 1979: Compuserve launches MicroNET
This day in history

24 September 1979: Compuserve launches MicroNET

One of the first steps to the internet we know and love was taken today on this day in 1979, when Compuserve launched its MicroNET service.
24 Sep 2020
24 September 1841: James Brooke becomes the Rajah of Sarawak
This day in history

24 September 1841: James Brooke becomes the Rajah of Sarawak

Having crushed a rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei, James Brooke was made the governor of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, and was later confirme…
24 Sep 2020

Most Popular

How the stamp duty holiday is pushing up house prices
Stamp duty

How the stamp duty holiday is pushing up house prices

Stamp duty is an awful tax and should be replaced by something better. But its temporary removal is driving up house prices, says Merryn Somerset Webb…
25 Sep 2020
Can Rishi Sunak’s winter plan save the UK economy?
UK Economy

Can Rishi Sunak’s winter plan save the UK economy?

With his Winter Economic Plan, chancellor Rishi Sunak is hoping to support the economy through the dark months ahead as restrictions tighten again. Jo…
25 Sep 2020
The electric-car bubble could get an awful lot bigger from here
Renewables

The electric-car bubble could get an awful lot bigger from here

The switch to electric cars is driving a huge investment bubble. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says John Stepek. Fortunes will be made and l…
24 Sep 2020