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 © VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images
(Image credit: © VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

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.

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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.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.

Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.

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