The Story Behind the Mona Lisa Heist

Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Red chalk....

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The police photograph and fingerprint record from the arrest of Vincenzo Peruggia. Courtesy of Joe Medeiros

For exactly a century, mystery has wrapped the most famous art crime in history — the theft of the Mona Lisa.

What many to consider the greatest portrait of all time, painted by Leonardo da Vinci from 1503 to 1507, disappeared from the Louvre on August 21, 1911. It was stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia (1881-1925), an Italian immigrant living in Paris who lived with the masterpiece for over two years.

Peruggia was never apprehended until he returned the Mona Lisa to Florence through an Italian art dealer, claiming he stole the painting to return it patriotically to the Italian people.

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However, the case has remained as elusive as the Mona Lisa’s smile.

It was hard to believe that Peruggia committed the theft alone, and several conspiracy theories arose.

“The prevailing theory was that he was just a small cog in a grand scheme to sell Mona Lisa forgeries to American millionaires. The theft of the real Mona Lisa was the only way to convince the buyers they were purchasing the real thing,” Joe Medeiros, author of the 88-minute documentary “The Missing Piece: The Truth About the Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa,” told Discovery News.

Medeiros, the former head writer for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” acquired copies of 1500 documents in the French an Italian archives, including police files and court documents, and finally discovered that money -– not really patriotism –- lay behind the famous theft.

Vincenzo Peruggia. Italy State Police/Wikimedia

In an attempt to find clues about Peruggia the man — who he was, what he thought and why he stole the painting — Medeiros met with Peruggia’s daughter Celestina in Italy.

But Celestina, who passed away in March at 87, knew very little about father.

“He died when she was a toddler,” said Medeiros.

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The filmmaker went to the Louvre and re-traced the route Perruggia took to steal the painting.

At the time of the theft, Peruggia was a 29 year-old housepainter who had worked at the Louvre for a short time helping cover 1600 masterpieces with glass to protect them from vandalism.

Peruggia became familiar with all the Italian art and wondered why it was in a French museum.

He read that Napoleon had looted Italy’s art treasures when he conquered the country and brought them back to Paris. Thus he believed that all the Italian art in the Louvre was there illegally and decided to bring one picture back to its country.

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Unaware that the Mona Lisa was sold by Leonardo da Vinci himself to King Francois I of France, he turned to this painting because it was small and easy to carry.

“He stole the masterpiece by simply walking into the museum on a Monday when the Louvre was closed for cleaning. He was dressed in a white smock and thus blended in with he other workers,” said Medeiros.

It was the easiest task: Peruggia removed the painting from the wall, took it from its frame and walked out of the museum with the Mona Lisa under his arm, wrapped in his smock.

The theft wasn’t discovered until the next day because the Louvre guards assumed the masterpiece was with the museum photographer.


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