The story behind theft of the Mona Lisa





On a mundane morning in late summer in Paris, the impossible happened. The Mona Lisa vanished. On Sunday evening, August 20, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s best-known painting was hanging in her usual place on the wall of the Salon Carré, between Correggio’s Mystical Marriage and Titian’s Allegory of Alfonso d’Avalos. On Tuesday morning, when the Louvre reopened to the public, she was gone.

Within hours of the discovery of the empty frame, stashed behind a radiator, the story broke in an extra edition of Le Temps, the leading morning newspaper. Incredulous reporters from local papers and international news services converged on the museum. Georges Bénédite, the acting director, and his curators were speculating freely to the press.

Louis Lépine, police prefect of the Seine, was annoyed by the curators’ loose talk. His men had found the frame, and he was confident they would soon find the painting. Until then he wanted to keep the public and the politicians calm. “The thieves — I am inclined to think there is more than one — got away with it, all right,” he told the press. While conceding that there were a number of plausible motives, he said: “The more serious possibility is that La Joconde was stolen to blackmail the government.”

If Mona Lisa were being held for ransom, Lépine expected a demand would be made within 48 hours.

On August 29, the day the museum opened its doors again, a “canary” began to sing to the editors of the Paris-Journal, which devoted its front page to a startling confession: “A thief brings us a statue stolen from the Louvre.”

It identified the thief as “a young man, aged between 20 and 25, very well mannered, with a certain American chic, whose face and look and behaviour bespoke at once a kind heart and a certain lack of scruples”.

In exchange for Fr250, the thief sold the journal a small statue he had stolen from the museum.

The thief made a full confession that in 1907 he had visited the Louvre’s Asiatic antiquities gallery, realised how easy it would be to pick up and take away almost any object of moderate size, and chose the head of a woman, which he concealed under his waistcoat and walked out. He sold the statue to a Parisian painter friend for Fr50. He had gone on to steal two more items, before “emigrating” to Mexico. But he had returned to Paris earlier that year, and on May 7 had visited the Louvre and taken the head of a woman.

The next day, August 30, the paper reported a second encounter with the thief, at which he revealed he was called Baron Ignace d’Ormesan. The recovered figure went on display in the window of the Paris-Journal, and hundreds jammed the newspaper office to view the stolen art.

For the first time since the Mona Lisa vanished, Parisians had cause to be optimistic. Prefect Lépine believed the same ring of international art thieves was behind both Louvre thefts — L’Affaire des Statuettes and L’Affaire de la Joconde. If he could collar the baron and his colleagues, the hunt would be over.

In a summer of unusually hot days, September 2 was a record breaker. In Paris, the temperature exceeded 97F. The investigation of the Louvre thefts was turning as hot as the weather.

In the seven years from 1905 to 1911, the genesis story of modern art was being written...


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