Who stole the Mona Lisa? The world's most famous art heist, 100 years on.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Aug. 7 2011 6:47 AM

Who Stole the Mona Lisa?

The world's most famous art heist, 100 years on.

(Continued from Page 1)

Meanwhile, the Mona Lisa was becoming a sensation. "In a thousand years," wrote the Da Vinci-devotee Joséphin Péladan, "people will ask of the year 1911: 'what did you do with the Joconde?'" Scotti writes: "Chorus lines made up with the face of Mona Lisa danced topless in the cabarets of Paris … Comedians asked, 'Will the Eiffel Tower be next?'"

The painting was celebrated in new popular songs ("It couldn't be stolen, we guard her all the time, except on Mondays"). Mona Lisa postcards sold in unprecedented numbers worldwide. Her face advertised everything from cigarettes ("I only smoke Zigomar") to corsets. In fact, no painting had ever previously been reproduced on such a scale. As Scotti said, she had suddenly become both "high culture" and "a staple of consumer culture." The Dutch painter Kees van Dongen was one of the few to puncture the hype: "She has no eyebrows and a funny smile. She must have had nasty teeth to smile so tightly."

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The French police were under international pressure to find the thief. All they had to go on was a fingerprint he had left on the wall, and the doorknob he had thrown into a ditch outside. Sauvet, the plumber who had let him out, was shown countless photographs of Louvre employees past and present, but could not recognise the thief. Employees and ex-employees were interrogated and fingerprinted—a newfangled technique in 1911—but nobody's print matched the thief's.

The Parisian police suspected the heist must be the work of a sophisticated ring of art thieves. In late August, they thought they had found them. A bisexual Belgian adventurer named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret had appeared at the offices of Le Journal, and sold the newspaper an Iberian statuette that he had previously stolen from the Louvre. He also talked of having stolen a statue of a woman's head from the museum, and having sold it to a painter friend. If these crooks had taken the statuettes, the police reasoned, they probably had the Mona Lisa too.

Géry often stayed in Paris with his friend Apollinaire, the poet, who had once called for the Louvre to be burned down. Apollinaire and Picasso were chums. After Géry's revelations, the two men panicked. Picasso still kept two ancient Iberian statuettes, stolen by Géry, in his cupboard in Montmartre. In fact he had used the heads as models for a brothel scene he had painted in 1907. "'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' was the first picture to bear the mark of cubism," Picasso recounted years later. "You will recall the affair in which I was involved when Apollinaire stole some statuettes from the Louvre? They were Iberian statuettes … Well, if you look at the ears of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, you will recognise the ears of those pieces of sculpture!" Perhaps he had even commissioned Géry's theft with the Demoiselles in mind.

At midnight on September 5, Picasso and Apollinaire sneaked out of Picasso's apartment and lugged the statuettes for miles in a suitcase across Paris. They had agreed to dump them into the River Seine. But, writes Scotti, in the end they didn't dare. On September 7, detectives arrested Apollinaire. He broke down and named Picasso. Both men cried under interrogation. Yet in court Picasso contradicted everything he had told police, and swore ignorance of the whole business. Shown Apollinaire, he said: "I have never seen him before." Eventually the police gave up on them.

In December 1912 the Louvre hung a portrait by Raphael on its blank wall. The Mona Lisa had been given up for dead.

The world had mostly forgotten her when on November 29 1913 an antique dealer in Florence named Alfredo Geri received a letter postmarked Poste Restante, Place de la République, Paris. The author, who signed himself "Leonardo", wrote: "The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an Italian."

Geri showed the letter to Giovanni Poggi, director of Florence's Uffizi gallery. Then Geri replied to "Leonardo." After some toing-and-froing, "Leonardo" said it would be no trouble for him to bring the painting to Florence.

Geri's shop was just a few streets from where Da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa 400 years before. On the evening of December 10 "Leonardo" unexpectedly walked in. He was a tiny man, just 5ft 3in tall, with a waxed moustache. When Geri asked whether his Mona Lisa was real, "Leonardo" replied that he had stolen her from the wall of the Louvre himself. He said he wanted to "return" her to Italy in exchange for 500,000 lire in "expenses." He had only 1.95 French francs in his pocket.

Geri arranged to come with Poggi to see the painting in "Leonardo's" room in the Tripoli-Italia hotel the next day. They went up to room 20 on the third floor. Leonardo locked the door, dragged a case from under his bed, rummaged in it, threw out some junk, pulled out a package, and unwrapped it to reveal the Mona Lisa.

The three men agreed that Poggi and Geri would take the painting to the Uffizi to authenticate it. On their way out the two were stopped by an alert hotel clerk, who thought they were stealing a painting from the hotel wall. At the Uffizi, Poggi established from the pattern of cracks in the painting that it was the real thing. When news reached the Italian parliament—"The Mona Lisa has been found!"—a fist-fight between deputies immediately turned into embraces, writes Scotti.

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