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

Men idolised her. Poets and painters paid homage to her beauty and sent love letters to her up-market 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.

In the months that followed, Vincenzo Perrugia knew he had to have her. For an Italian outcast, who felt spurned by his Parisian colleagues, she was the ultimate prize. He “fell in love with her”, he confessed from jail. This femme fatale was the Mona Lisa.

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.

On the morning of 21 August 1911, Perrugia slipped out of the closet 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.

Also on this day

21 August 1991: coup to oust Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev fails

Communist hardliners arrested Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev while he was on holiday, hastening the end of the USSR, on this day in 1991. Read more here.