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ON AUGUST 21, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa disappeared from The Louvre’s Salon Carré, not to return to the museum until 1914. Was the culprit Vincenzo Peruggia simply performing an act of misunderstood patriotism? Or was it an innovative scam involving a con man, a master forger, and an international conspiracy? Or was the scam merely the imagination of a Saturday Evening Post journalist two decades later?
The Famous Painting. Mona Lisa aka Monna Lisa aka La Gioconda aka La Joconde is a half-length portrait, 30 in. x 21 in., painted by Leonardo da Vinci sometime between 1503 and 1517. The lady of the enigmatic smile is thought to be Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo.
The painting’s value is immense. Back in 1962, it was insured for $100 million, just short of a billion dollars in today’s currency.
The Facts, Sort Of. Italian-born Vincenzo Peruggia was a former Louvre employee living in Paris. He later confessed to a straightforward, if brazen theft: Wearing a museum-employee smock, Peruggia entered the workers’ entrance to The Louvre, went to the otherwise empty Salon Carré, removed the Mona Lisa from its four steel pegs, wrapped the painting in the smock, and retraced his route out of the museum.
The thief later claimed that patriotism was his motive: to return the masterpiece to its Italian homeland whence Napoleon had stolen it. Peruggia’s knowledge of history was faulty in this regard: By 1518, (278 years before Napoleon’s looting Italian art treasures), Da Vinci was living in France and the painting belonged to its King Francis I.
Peruggia kept Mona hidden in his Paris apartment for two years and then took her to Florence, Italy. He was finally caught after approaching a Florence art gallery owner about returning her, allegedly for a reward.
Mona was displayed all over Italy with banners rejoicing her return. She didn’t go back to The Louvre until after this tour. As noted by Wikipedia, “While the painting was famous before the theft, the notoriety it received from the newspaper headlines and the large scale police investigation helped the artwork become one of the best known in the world.”
Considered something of a national hero, Peruggia served for only one year and 15 days. He later served in the Italian army during World War I, married, returned to France, and resumed work as a decorator.
Peruggia died on his 44th birthday, October 8, 1925, in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, France. Wikipedia notes that “His death was not widely reported by the media; obituaries appeared mistakenly only when another Vincenzo Peruggia died in Haute-Savoie in 1947.”
And Then Came Karl Decker. In 1932, former Hearst journalist Karl Decker wrote a story for the Saturday Evening Post, in which he detailed a conspiracy involving Peruggia, Argentine con man Eduardo de Valfierno, and French art forger Yves Chaudron. The plan described was a brilliant one: Chaudron would provide six copies of the Mona Lisa. Valfierno, posing as an art-knowledgable marquis, would sell each fake with the claim it was the real painting. And the missing Mona would only enhance the con.
In a sense, Karl Decker had a more novel scam than Vincenzo Peruggia. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019