On Monday morning, Aug. 21, 1911, inside the Louvre museum in Paris, a plumber named Sauvet came upon an unidentified man stuck in front of a locked door. The man—wearing a white smock, like all the Louvre's maintenance staff—pointed out to Sauvet that the doorknob was missing. The helpful Sauvet opened the door with his key and some pliers. The man walked out of the museum and into the Parisian heatwave. Hidden under his smock was Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa."
The art theft of the century helped make the Mona Lisa what she is today. The world's popular newspapers—a new phenomenon in 1911—and the French police searched everywhere for the culprit. At one point they even suspected Pablo Picasso. Only one person was ever arrested for the crime in France: the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. But the police found the thief only when he finally outed himself.
Stealing "La Joconde"—the woman in the portrait is probably the Florentine silk merchant's wife Lisa del Giocondo—was not particularly difficult. The main thing it took was nerve. Like the Louvre's other paintings, she was barely guarded. She wasn't fixed to the wall. The Louvre was closed on Mondays. August is Paris's quietest month. On that particular Monday morning, the few caretakers were mostly busy cleaning.
At 7.20am the thief was probably hiding in the storage closet where he may have spent the night. All he had to do was wait until the elderly ex-soldier who was guarding several rooms had wandered off, then lift the frame off its hooks, remove the frame from the painting, and shove the wooden panel on which Da Vinci had painted under his smock. The thief had chosen the Mona Lisa partly because she was so small: just 53cm x 77cm. His one stumble was finding the door to his escape locked. He had already removed the doorknob with a screwdriver before the plumber arrived to save him. By 8.30am, Mona Lisa was gone.
Twelve hours later, writes the French author Jérôme Coignard in Une femme disparaît, one of several books on the crime, the caretaker in charge reported that everything was normal. Even the next morning, Tuesday, nobody had yet noticed Mona Lisa's absence. Paintings in the Louvre often disappeared briefly. The museum's photographers were free to take works to their studio at will, without signing them out.
When the painter Louis Béroud arrived in the Louvre's Salon Carré on Tuesday morning to sketch the Mona Lisa, and found only four iron hooks in the wall, he presumed the photographers had her. Béroud joked with the guard: "Of course Paupardin, when women are not with their lovers, they are apt to be with their photographers." But when Mona Lisa was still absent at 11am, Béroud sent Paupardin to ask the photographers when she would be back, recounts the American author R.A. Scotti in her excellent recent account, Vanished Smile. The photographers said they hadn't taken her and the alarm was raised. In the corner of a service stairway, police found the glass box that had contained the painting, and the frame donated two years earlier by the Comtesse de Béarn.
The newspapers put the theft on their front pages. "We still have the frame," added the Petit Parisien daily in a sarcastic strapline. The far-right Action Française newspaper blamed the Jews.
Critics had pointed out the lack of security, but the museum had taken only a few eccentric corrective measures: teaching the elderly guards judo, for instance. Jean Théophile Homolle, director of all France's national museums, had assured the press before leaving on his summer holidays that the Louvre was secure. "You might as well pretend that one could steal the towers of the cathedral of Notre-Dame," he said. After the theft, the French journalist Francis Charmes would comment: "La Joconde was stolen because nobody believed she could be."
"Some judges regard the painting as the finest existing," noted The New York Times. But even before Mona Lisa disappeared she was more than a painting. Leonardo's feat was to have made her almost a person. "Mona Lisa is painted at eye level and almost life-size, both disconcertingly real and transcendent," writes Scotti. Many romantics responded to the picture as if to a woman. Mona Lisa received love letters and was given a touch more surveillance than the Louvre's other works, because some visitors stared at the "aphrodisiac" painting and became "visibly emotional", writes Coignard. In 1910, one lover had shot himself before her eyes. After the theft, a French psychology professor suggested that the thief might be a sexual psychopath who would enjoy "mutilating, stabbing, defiling" Mona Lisa.
But nobody knew who the thief was, nor how he would profit from his haul. Monsieur Bénédite, the Louvre's assistant curator, told The New York Times: "Why the theft was committed is a mystery to me, as I consider the picture valueless in the hands of a private individual." If you had the Mona Lisa, what could you do with her?
The stricken Louvre closed for a week, but when it reopened, on Tuesday August 29, queues formed outside for the first time ever. People were streaming in to see the empty space where Mona Lisa had hung. Unwittingly, Coignard writes, the Louvre was exhibiting the first conceptual installation in the history of art: the absence of a painting.
Among the many who saw it were two Prague writers travelling through Europe on the cheap: Max Brod and Franz Kafka. On their travels they had had a brilliant idea: to write a series of guidebooks (On the Cheap in Switzerland, On the Cheap in Paris, etcetera) for other budget travellers. Kafka always was ahead of his time.