When I started my series of posts on the Mona Lisa, I wanted to tell the story of her disappearance in a manner that did it justice. I was captivated by Vanished Smile, a book that makes the painting come to life (more so than she reportedly does!)
In this post I will sum up for you an interesting chapter of the investigation which I learned of from R. A. Scotti. I have left out plenty of details; to enjoy the full scope of the madness, you’ll have to read the book.
History is stranger than fiction. In 1911 France’s most famous lady was stolen–practically from under the noses of guards. The world was left reeling from the brashness of this theft.
It was a time of change in the art world. Pablo Picasso had begun championing a new form of art, modern and daring, a far cry from the styles of the old masters. His style brought together a group of enthusiasts determined to challenge tradition and redefine beauty.
Many members of Picasso’s gang were known for being loud and sometimes rude. They were labeled romantic renegades by those who admired them, ne’er-do-wells by disapprovers. It wasn’t until La Gioconda’s disappearance that something happened to pull them into legal problems.
During this interlude in the search for da Vinci’s painting, the police no longer saw these people as artists making a statement. Instead the police called them “foreign thieves and swindlers who have come to France to plunder its treasure.”
With dozens of theories but no clues about the painting’s whereabouts, Picasso’s gang gave police something to focus on. It all started with some badly timed letters, an apparent joke gone wrong.
Following Mona Lisa‘s disappearance, an explosion of fake copies and ‘sightings’ sprang up worldwide. Louvre experts examined the false paintings turned in by people hoping for a reward. They did not fall for the scams, but were no closer to an answer.
On August 29, the day the Museum opened again, a strange correspondent wrote to the editors of the Paris-Journal. This newspaper had promised a reward as well as anonymity to thief if they should return La Gioconda.
His first letter did not speak of La Gioconda, but it didn’t arrive alone. With it was a small statue the writer claimed was from the Louvre. He wrote about a series of thefts, his story raising as many questions as it answered.
Most of all, it rubbed salt into the wound of the Museum’s lax security.
It was in March, 1907, that I entered the Louvre for the first time—a young man with time to kill and no money to spend … I suddenly realized how easy it would be to … take away almost any object of moderate size.
The mysterious author explained how he had chosen the head of a woman, concealed it under his vest, and walked out. He sold the statue to an unnamed painter-friend for fifty francs ($200.)
The very next day I took a man’s head with enormous ears. … And three days later, a plaster fragment covered in hieroglyphs. A friend gave me twenty francs for this last. … Now one of my colleagues has spoiled all of my plans for a collection by making this hullabaloo in the painting department!
The next day, August 30, the paper reported a second letter from the mysterious writer.
… You will allow me a few words of protest against certain terms of abuse leveled at me in your issue of yesterday … A professional thief, lacking all moral sense, would remain unaffected by them; but I am not without sensitivity…
The letter was signed Baron Ignace d’Ormesan.
An examination by Louvre curators confirmed that the statue was property of the museum. It meant that the thief’s story was true: at least one statue had been stolen. The next day, ‘Baron d’Ormesan’ wrote another letter in the same mocking tone:
I do not want to leave France without once again sending you my thanks for the chivalrous manner in which you handled the little matter…
Then he finished:
I can only urge the person at present holding Vinci’s masterpiece to place himself entirely in your hands. He has a colleague’s word for it that your good faith is above all suspicion.
The morning paper had scarcely gone out before Prefect Lépine identified the so-called Baron d’Ormesan. It was a familiar name to Parisian literati belonging to a fictional character from L’Hérésiarque et cie, a collection of stories written by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
Apollinaire was a part of Picasso’s crowd. Police were soon knocking at the poet’s door.
Three days after Mona Lisa’s disappearance, Apollinaire had written in the paper L’Intrasigeant:
The pictures, even the smallest, are not padlocked on the walls, as they are in most museums abroad. Furthermore, it is a fact that the guards have never been drilled in how to rescue pictures in case of fire. The situation is one of carelessness, negligence, indifference.
Loosely known as la bande de Picasso, the group was famous for more than their loud opinions. They were outlaws of traditional art, set on breaking the rules to free art from art history.
Mona Lisa was the archetype of the dead masterpieces they rejected. If Picasso’s group had indeed taken her, no one would have been surprised. Prefect Lépine was convinced that la bande de Picasso was involved.
Apollinaire’s letters as the Baron placed him in the middle of the investigation–and in deep trouble.
Guillaume Apollinaire was transported in handcuffs to the Palais de Justice, where for hours he refused to provide any information. Only at the point of arrest did he confess that he was not the statue thief, but knew who was. He named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian who had been living in his apartment as a secretary.
He admitted to knowing about Géry’s theft. He confessed to having bought Géry a train ticket to Marseilles on August 21, urging him to leave the country. Apollinaire thought that he would be released after giving the information.
Instead he was locked in a cell at Le Santé prison for being an accomplice.
La bande de Picasso was a guilty party to Prefect Lépine. He was confident that they were the gang of thieves he was after—and that they would be able to tell him Mona Lisa’s whereabouts.
It wasn’t long before he’d arrested the face of the movement, Picasso himself.
Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso, so often seen together as leaders of a band of rebels, faced one another in the courtroom. Their nerves caused them to trip on words, contradicting themselves and one another.
When asked about his friendship with Apollinaire, Picasso said, “I have never seen him before.”
Picasso confessed to having bought the stolen statues. He was released on his own recognizance and warned not to leave Paris. Apollinaire was returned to the Santé prison, but there was not enough evidence to link him to the theft of Mona Lisa. He was released on September 13.
The theft of Mona Lisa had found a likely culprit in la bande de Picasso, but it was a dead end. Géry’s theft of the statues was possible because of the poor security which enabled the theft of la Gioconda.
Unfortunately for detectives, this only proved that theft was easy at the Louvre, not that Picasso’s band had indeed taken the painting. The questions remained: who was the thief, and where was the painting? No closer to an answer, police began to lose spirit.
For years Picasso never spoke of the Mona Lisa ordeal. He continued being his larger-than-life self, leading the modern art movement with his bold colors and shapes.
It was 1959 when at last he mentioned Apollinaire during an interview:
When the judge asked me, ‘Do you know this gentleman?’ I was suddenly terribly frightened and without knowing what I was saying, I answered, ‘I have never seen this man.’ I saw Guillaume’s expression change. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.
I wish I had read Vanished Smile before I went to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa. R. A. Scotti tells the story of her disappearance with more grace than I’ve been able to manage. If you like history, art, and true stories that sound insane, I encourage you to grab a copy and dig in.
Next week I’ll wrap up my Mona Lisa segment with her return to the Louvre–and the peculiar circumstances surrounding that. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this story as much as I did!