Bonjorno Angelenos. Astor again and today, from the decorated halls of Los Angeles’s one and only Speakeasy Tattoo, I will tell you a tale of theft, misplaced patriotism, and MURDER.
Ok so I lied about the murder but still the first two things are included.
So in a previous, life back when I had delusions that working in academia would give me any sort of satisfaction, I was a grad student in England… and because I was a grad student in England I spent a lot of time in art museums (which are almost all free over there btw, take note America you capitalist hellscape). Not only that, but because I was a grad student and I have a physical build that could charitably be described as unthreatening, I was able to get behind the scenes peeks into some of the vaults, which meant becoming overly familiar with exactly how much security, and how many failsafes an art museum has.
It was not always so.
Now I love a good heist story, and art heist is some of the most consequence-free theft there is, in that museums have insurance and hyper wealthy collectors get to suffer. Think Robin Hood meets the Thomas Crown Affair. And when it comes to art theft stories, there’s probably no bigger whale for a budding art thief to land than the Mona Lisa. For those of you unaware (welcome to the world, former hermits!) the Mona Lisa is the painting done by Leonardo da Vinci of the woman with the knowing eyes and a complexion most resembling uncooked bread. Though Italian in origin, the painting has been housed on French soil since 1797 and has spent nearly all of that time on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. I say nearly all that time because there was a brief period when Napoleon had her installed in his bedroom (maybe he had a thing for uncooked bread idk) and in 1911 the city of Paris would awaken to discover that their brioche bae was not in her usual gallery— that she had, in fact, been stolen.
The date. August 22nd. 1911. The location. Salon Carré of the Louvre’s waterside gallery, and the first to notice something was amiss was local still life painter Louis Béroud, who had come to the gallery to get some of his own painting done. Initially Béroud wasn’t alarmed by the conspicuous bald patch on the wall; conveniently this all happened during a time when a project was underway to, for the first time, document in photography many of the Louvre’s acquisitions, and so sudden deinstallation was common. And, the Mona Lisa wasn’t even all that famous, at the time. Béroud, however, was a bit of a Leonardo fanboy, and spent as much free time as possible in the Leonardo room, so he missed Mona Lisa’s yeasty visage. As the story goes Béroud persuaded one of the guards to ask the project’s photographers when the painting would be back on display, and it was only then that the Musee realized a theft had taken place.
The painting wouldn’t be found for over two years.
So who had the brass balls to nab a masterpiece? Meet Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian national and museum worker contracted by the institution. According to Peruggia he entered the museum the morning of the 21st wearing the typical uniform of a museum employee, and simply walked to the gallery where the painting was hung, then casually lifted it off its display pegs, and proceeded to walk with the painting wrapped in his uniform smock to a nearby service staircase, leaving the building through the same door he entered. Peruggia then took the painting back to his apartment, keeping it hidden in a trunk for two whole years before his return to Italy, where he stashed it in his Florentine home. During this time, he considered selling the painting, but the attention his theft had gained made it too hot. Within days of the theft, newspapers began offering rewards, and French police began investigating wealthy collectors hoping one of them had knowledge of any attempt to fence the painting, and would offer up information on the theft. Through all this, Peruggia bided his time, but by 1913 he was growing impatient. Frustrated, he contacted the owner of a local gallery, Mario Fratelli, betting on Fratelli making him an offer. He wrote a letter, saying he had the masterwork in his possession, and, in a fairly boastful move, signed it Leonardo. Upon hearing that some Florentine rando had the world’s most famous stolen masterpiece in his apartment, Fratelli was understandably skeptical, however, after making arrangements to meet with Peruggia along with Giovanni Poggi— the then director of the Uffizi— it was confirmed that this painting was indeed the real deal.
Just imagine you are Vincenzo. You have had this veritable albatross hanging around your neck for two whole years. The press is having a field day with reports of the theft, the Parisian police have constructed some elaborate chain of events which they believe is the only way the painting could have been stolen, and you can’t hock the damn thing anywhere. Ah, but here’s the director of the Uffizi! A major Italian museum! He’s interested in Her Breadiness, and wants to take her off your hands! You’d be grateful to meet him, wouldn’t you? You’d expect him to be grateful, too, bringing a masterwork by Leonardo back to Italian soil, right?
Well, perhaps Giovanni Poggi was grateful, but he had a funny way of showing it. He accepted the painting, sure enough, but he also had Vincenzo Peruggia arrested.
Peruggia then made a bold claim, and a rather romantic one, which has been latched on to in reporting upon the event ever since. He said that the reason he stole Signora Sourdough was not for fame nor riches, but instead, for national pride. He wanted to repatriate her, return her to the homeland of her creator. This defense featured heavily in his trial, and seems to have been effective, as he was sentenced to only 380 days in jail. Furthermore, the Italian public hailed him as a hero, and he only served 7 months of that time. He then went on to have a life, a daughter, and a fairly obscure death in 1925.
Meanwhile, Italy rejoiced in their good fortune of having a reason to tour the Mona Lisa all around the country, with banner headlines and much fanfare. It was, obviously, returned to the Louvre eventually (where it hangs today, behind thick bulletproof sheeting and approximately a million tourists at any given moment in time), but not before the theft, and subsequent homecoming tour, made the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world.