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

A family-run investment trust to buy and lock away
Investment trusts

A family-run investment trust to buy and lock away

Menhaden Resource Efficiency made a slow start, but progress is encouraging. Buy before the discount closes, says Max King.
16 May 2022
Get set for another debt binge as real interest rates fall
UK Economy

Get set for another debt binge as real interest rates fall

Despite the fuss about rising interest rates, they’re falling in real terms. That will blow up a wild bubble, says Matthew Lynn.
15 May 2022
Hong Kong’s brain drain
Chinese economy

Hong Kong’s brain drain

A change in the political atmosphere and a harsh zero-Covid regime has seen thousands flee the global financial hub. Does it have a future – or will S…
14 May 2022
James Anderson: innovation is still the key to returns
Investment strategy

James Anderson: innovation is still the key to returns

James Anderson, the man behind the Scottish Mortgage investment trust, tells Merryn Somerset Webb what he’d buy now
13 May 2022

Most Popular

High inflation will fade – here’s why
Inflation

High inflation will fade – here’s why

Many people expect high inflation to persist for a long time. But that might not be true, says Max King. Inflation may fall faster than expected – and…
13 May 2022
Cryptocurrencies are crashing – so how low will bitcoin go?
Bitcoin & crypto

Cryptocurrencies are crashing – so how low will bitcoin go?

The entire cryptocurrency sector is crashing, with bitcoin now well below $30,000. This is big, says Dominic Frisby. So just how low could bitcoin go?
12 May 2022
What the Ukraine crisis might mean for ESG investing
Advertisement Feature

What the Ukraine crisis might mean for ESG investing

The Ukraine crisis has brought many of the issues around ESG investing into sharper focus. Where does the sector go from here?
3 May 2022