Freed, Peruggia returned to the hotel where he had met Geri, and found that it had already been renamed La Gioconda. (It still exists under the same name today.) Peruggia served in the Italian army during the first world war, but later returned to France and opened a paint shop in a village in Haute-Savoie. He died there on his 44th birthday in 1925, perhaps from the consequences of lead poisoning. He left a wife and baby daughter (who herself died in Italy this March, aged 86). The public never noticed his death. The only obituaries to the thief of the Mona Lisa appeared, mistakenly, in 1947, when another Vincenzo Peruggia died in France.
The feeling never quite passed that the Mona Lisa deserved a more impressive thief. In 1932 the famous American journalist Karl Decker supplied one. Decker, in his younger years an inventive reporter for the Hearst newspapers, published an article in the Saturday Evening Post headlined, "Why and How the Mona Lisa Was Stolen".
Decker said he had waited so long to publish because he had promised his source he would reveal all only after the source's death. In 1914 in Casablanca, wrote Decker, he had run into an old friend, an Argentine conman known as the Marques de Valfierno. Over brandies, the Marques had told Decker that Peruggia had merely been an agent in the Marques' own perfect crime. First the Marques had had a French master-forger, Chaudron, make six copies of the Mona Lisa. The Marques had openly shipped them to the US. Then he arranged for Peruggia to nab the Mona Lisa. After that, the Marques had sold the six copies secretly to American collectors, for millions of dollars each, pretending each time that the copy was the real Mona Lisa. The only flaw in the plan, the Marques had told Decker, was that that fool Peruggia had then tried to flog the actual painting.
Here at last was a criminal brain worthy of the Mona Lisa. The only problem is that Decker almost certainly invented him. There is no external evidence for Decker's story, nor even for the Marques' existence. A century later, none of the six supposed copies has surfaced. Most likely, Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa single-handed, largely because she was small.
. . .
The other day I went to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. I wasn't the only one. From the moment you enter the museum, you see signs pointing to her smiling face (or as W. Somerset Maugham called it, "the insipid smile of that prim and sex-starved young woman"). You walk into the room where she hangs and find a ruck of a couple of hundred people, their backs to you, many with mobile phones above their heads taking photographs. Somewhere in the distance is a surprisingly small picture of a smiling woman, mostly obscured by phones. She is behind a frame and a second plate of glass, which protects her but also distorts her colours. Her beauty is lost. Unless you are a connoisseur of mob scenes, there is little here to enjoy. You envy Peruggia his time alone with her in his room two miles from here.
You can see the Louvre's strategy. It has sacrificed the Mona Lisa for the museum. By guiding visitors towards the painting, it pockets their €10 yet keeps a swathe of them away from the rest of the collection. Most of the Louvre is relatively calm. Other great works, many of them looted at considerable effort by Napoleon, draw little attention. You can stand alone admiring Raphaels for a minute or two at a time.
It's not that the Mona Lisa is better than the museum's other paintings. The point is that they are paintings and she is a person. That's partly because of Da Vinci's genius, and partly because of the myth that has grown up around her. It's often said, for instance, that wherever you stand in front of the Mona Lisa, her eyes will follow you. Sassoon writes: "In reality the effect can be obtained from any portrait."
Her myth stems, in part, from the story of her theft and return. "A painting had been turned, anthropomorphically, into a person, a celebrity," says Sassoon. Peruggia, by choosing Mona Lisa that morning, helped elevate her above all other paintings. That—and a good story—is his legacy.
Additional research by Pauline Harris.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.