On August 21, 1911, one of the greatest art thefts of the twentieth century occurred when a man calmly walked out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa tucked under his arm. The identity of the thief would remain a mystery for two years.
Following the theft, the Louvre was closed for one week during the investigation. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire was suspected of the crime, as he had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down. Apollinaire implicated his friend, artist Pablo Picasso, but both men were eventually exonerated.
Finally, in 1913, the true identity of the Mona Lisa thief was discovered. Vincenzo Peruggia, a former Louvre worker, had stolen the painting and kept it hidden in a trunk in his apartment for two years. Returning to his native Italy, Peruggia was finally caught when he tried to sell the painting to Alfredo Geri, an art gallery owner in Florence. Geri informed the police, who arrested Peruggia at his hotel.
So how did Peruggia simply walk out of the Louvre with what is now the most famous painting in the world? During his interrogation, Peruggia explained that he had entered the museum around 7 a.m. on the morning of the crime wearing one of the white smocks typically worn by Louvre employees. The museum being closed on Mondays, he was able to remove the painting from the wall without anyone seeing him. He took the painting to a nearby service staircase and removed its protective frame and case. He then covered the painting with his white smock and left the Louvre the same way he had entered.
After being caught, Peruggia claimed to have stolen the painting for patriotic reasons, saying that his goal was to bring the Mona Lisa back to its “homeland.” He was given a lenient sentence of just one year and fifteen days in jail. After only serving seven months in jail, he was released and celebrated as a patriot in Italy. The painting was displayed throughout Italy before being returned to the Louvre in 1913.
While the 1911 theft of the masterpiece almost caused it to be lost forever, the incident is also largely responsible for its current fame. The Mona Lisa was not widely known by the general public before it was stolen and its subsequent return was reported worldwide, greatly increasing public recognition of the painting.