Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre Museum in 1911. Although it was originally believed that this was the act of one thief, a Louvre employee named Vincenzo Perugia, other culprits have also been blamed throughout the years. Above all, some believe that the Mona Lisa that was recovered (and is once again hanging in the Louvre) is a highly-sophisticated forgery.
In 1911, the Louvre was more concerned with vandals than thieves only because the Mona Lisa had been previously attacked with razors and acid. In fact, that’s why they’d hired Vincenzo Perugia, an immigrant Italian cabinet craftsman, to build a glass box to protect the painting.
What the Louvre officials didn’t know, however, was that Perugia held a deep resentment against France, believing that all of the museum’s Italian renaissance masterpieces, including the Mona Lisa, had been stolen from Italy’s museums and galleries during Napoleon’s invasion. When he was caught two years after stealing the great painting, Perugia claimed that he was only returning the painting to its rightful owner: Italy.
Actually, the “heist” was closer in nature to an act of shoplifting. In broad daylight, the glass box containing the Mona Lisa was lifted off the wall and walked past a napping security guard. Peruglia then took it to his flat, only a few blocks away from the Louvre.
Eventually Perugia returned to his native Italy with the painting inside the false bottom of his suitcase. He was caught after trying to sell the Mona Lisa to a Florence antique dealer, who then consulted with the curator of the Uffizi Gallery to determine its authenticity.
When first interrogated, Perugia told the police that he had stolen the painting himself. But later he’d told them that he had two accomplices. The Italian police, however, didn’t have enough evidence to bring Perugia’s alleged “accomplices” to trial.
During Perugia’s trial, the Italian populace clamored to his support, declaring him to be a national hero. He was only sentenced to seven months in jail.
A side note: the Mona Lisa, in fact, wasn’t stolen by Napoleon’s invading troops. The artist da Vinci himself had sold the painting to France’s King Francois I.
Marques Eduardo de Valfiero
In later years, stories began to circulate that Perugia not only had accomplices, but the whole scheme was actually hatched by a master international con artist.
Like most confidence tricksters, Eduardo de Valfiero’s personal details are sketchy at best. Upon arriving in Paris, he had described himself as a wealthy Uruguayan nobleman. Not much more is known about him, and that was probably a lie.
A friend of master Parisian art forger Yves Chaudron, fingers have pointed to Valfiero as the mastermind of the Mona Lisa heist. It’s said that Valfiero was more interested in producing exact fake copies of the real Mona Lisa than stealing the original. It’s also been said that Chaudron had forged six copies, and Valfiero sold all of them, except for the one that he gave to Vincenzo Perugia.
Although there some in the art world have pushed the Louvre to do testing to determine the Mona Lisa’s authenticity, museum officials haven’t responded.
“20th Century’s Greatest Art Thefts”, Anthony Haden-Guest, Forbes
“Stealing the Mona Lisa”, Howard Chua-Eoan, Time
“Nonfiction in brief”, Frances Taliaferro, New York Times
“The Private Life of a Masterpiece”, Monica Bohm-Duchen, pg. 56