The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the Worlds Most Famous Painting


But Peruggia had missed the lecture on this historical detail.

When half a billion dollars' worth of art vanished

He saw an opportunity to repatriate the painting when the firm for which he worked as a carpenter and glazier was hired to build protective cases to cover some of the Louvre's most famous works, ostensibly to protect them from attack, after an anarchist had slashed an Ingres painting in protest. Peruggia found himself with a Louvre worker's uniform, and direct contact with the Mona Lisa. On the night before August 2 , he hid inside a closet in the Louvre, waiting for the footfalls of the night guards to fade into the distance.

In the early morning hours, he slipped out of the closet, removed the Mona Lisa from its wall in the Salon Carre of the Louvre, and retreated to a service staircase. There he took the painting out of its frame, wrapped it in a white sheet, and headed down the stairs. There was surely a moment of great panic, when Peruggia twisted the doorknob at the foot of the stairs, and found it locked from the inside.

He was prepared for an eventuality such as this, and had tools with him. He unscrewed the doorknob and slipped it into his pocket, thinking this might unlock the door, but it didn't. He was trapped inside the Louvre, with the world's most famous painting tucked under his arm Up the stairs came a plumber, making his morning rounds.

To the plumber, Peruggia looked like a Louvre worker who had accidentally been locked in overnight—not an unheard-of occurrence. He opened the door and let Peruggia out, thinking nothing of the Mona Lisa-shaped package that Peruggia carried with him. It would be two years before the Mona Lisa was seen again. The investigation was a fiasco that resulted in the dismissal of the head of the Louvre and the head of the Paris police. International media mocked the lack of security at the Louvre -- in fact, this was the first theft to spark the interest of the world media, kicking off a love affair with the elite world of high-priced art, and its theft.

The most cinematic and resounding success for the Monuments Men was the salvation of the 12, masterpieces destined for Hitler's planned Linz museum, which were stored in an ancient salt mine at Altaussee, in Austria, which had been converted by the Nazis into a secret stolen art warehouse. Peruggia was under the mistaken impression that the Mona Lisa had been looted by Napoleon, during his Italian campaign. It was supervised by a ferocious SS officer, August Eigruber, who was determined to destroy all of the art if he could not defend it against the Allies.

This is where the most famous pieces were kept, including gems by Vermeer, Raphael, Rembrandt, and a who's-who of Old Master artists. But there is some confusion as to whether the Mona Lisa was there, as well. The A-listers who can't stop splashing cash on canvas. The photographs of the crime scene a century ago show not a dramatically empty glass case, as one would nowadays see, or even a large expanse of bare wall, but a narrow gap between the Titians and Correggios — something more like a missing tooth.

It is well known that thousands of people came to view this spot, this gap, this rumoured blank — more people, it is often pointed out, than used to visit when the painting was there. But there was something to see, not quite a blank. Four iron hooks and a dusty outline: The smile was missing, or was it hanging in the air like the proverbial Cheshire Cat?

Did the Nazis also steal the Mona Lisa?

Some claimed to have felt it continuing to resonate, like a visitation. And it is, after all, the Mona Lisa 's crowning glory, this artful vanishing act.

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A smile is such a tricky thing to depict. It nearly always stiffens and dies on the canvas. The Mona Lisa 's is only enigmatic because of Leonardo's sfumato technique — that smokey, smudgy blur where you can't see how the smile ends at each corner, so that it simply tails away, unresolved, literally open-ended. Sfumato is not the only thing that makes her smile mysterious, of course. There are many contributory factors, but high on the list is the total absence of any visible context or event that could help to explain this peculiar smile. Vasari reduced it all to a sideshow: Leonardo had laid on musicians and jesters to keep his sitter from ennui.

Some people think she was remembering lost love. But if the Mona Lisa were handed a baby, her smile would become beatific and make her look even more like a secular Madonna. With a couple of jesters on site, she might come across as polite if disapproving. The art historian Edgar Wind once slotted her into two different scenes to illustrate this point and was able to show that the same expression could look like grief at the Crucifixion, or tipsy mirth in the context of a bacchanalian revel.

Mona Lisa smiles, but why? Nobody is talking, no jokes are being cracked, there are no letters to read, no dinners to eat, no babies to dandle or kittens to stroke: And all of the many interpretations of her smile — lonely, tragic, self-conscious, uncomfortable, superior, even sinister — depend on that lack of explanation.

But what they also depend on, and did in , is a much greater absence: She has such a curious look — denuded, or as if chemotherapy had worked its bittersweet way, depriving her of not just eyebrows, in fact, but eyelashes too. Though the eyebrows are truly crucial, for they give definition not just to the eyes but to the whole face.

Did the Nazis steal the Mona Lisa?

The Mona Lisa 's eyebrows were there during Leonardo's lifetime. Vasari, the great renaissance art historian, also gives a description of the painting: Around them were reddish specks and hairs that could only be depicted with immense subtlety.

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The brows could not be more natural: Leonardo began painting the Mona Lisa in Florence around , and took it with him when he left for France 13 years later. When the aristocracy fell during the French revolution, the painting became part of the public collection of the Louvre. This is the only way to explain how the "Mona Lisa" — restitution number MNR , which now hangs in the Louvre's administrative offices — did return from Altaussee. It also explains why the Mona Lisa was not noted in all of the records related to Altaussee — some officers recognised that the Altaussee painting was a copy, while others thought it the original.

The kidnap of that copy preserved the real Mona Lisa from the Nazi art hunters, who might otherwise have wrought unimaginable damage in their search for the hidden original. Order by newest oldest recommendations. Show 25 25 50 All. Threads collapsed expanded unthreaded. Loading comments… Trouble loading? Jewish art collector's cherished works are among those in Munich hoard.

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The painting was in Switzerland or Argentina. It was 24 hours before anyone noticed she was missing. For a fascinating question remains, and one with a complicated answer: Science Age of Humans. Show 25 25 50 All.

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