The Man Who Kidnapped MONA LISA


When Mona Lisa vanished from the Louvre Museum in 1911, she became a worldwide obsession. In reality, it is just another instance of art theft. This remains a common crime, though it has never again shaken the world like it did with Leonardo’s masterpiece.

Every year, more than 50,000 art pieces are stolen around the world. The annual black market value for art theft stands between 6 and 8 billion.

After months of frantic search, the world lost hope that she would be found. Bigger tragedies took place: the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic went down on her maiden voyage, giving reporters something new to focus on.

Fifteen months after her disappearance, France formally abandoned hope of La Gioconda returning. The case was closed, and life in Paris resumed its fast pace.

Letter From ‘Leonardo’

It was Winter in the year 1913. Florence art dealer Alfredo Geri was anticipating a busy Christmas season. He had placed an ad in many Italian newspapers, offering to pay generously for fine artwork.

Responses poured in; Geri looked over them every morning, sorting out replies that sounded promising. One of them stood out from the others.

It was postmarked Poste Restante, Place de la République, Paris. It was signed “Leonardo.” Geri first suspected it to be a prank, but followed his gut and read on:

The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was Italian. My dream is to give back this masterpiece to the land from which he came and to the country that inspired it.

Geri took the letter to Giovanni Poggi, director of the local Uffizi Gallery. Poggi was skeptical of the letter, thinking it would be at best a well-done copy; nonetheless, he told Geri there was no loss in writing back. They told the thief that they would have to see the painting before they made an offer.

“Leonardo” wrote back quickly. He invited Geri to visit him. Poggi agreed that, when the day was set, he would go with the art dealer to examine the piece and determine whether it was a fake.

On December 10, Geri’s shop had a great deal of customers. One of them stood out from the others; he lurked in the shadows, waiting until everyone else had gone before approaching the art dealer. He introduced himself as the Leonardo from the letters and said that he had brought Mona Lisa home to Florence.

Geri and Poggi followed ‘Leonardo’ to the hotel where he was staying. It was the Albergio Tripoli-Italia, located blocks away from the house where Lisa del Giocondo had posed for the real Leonardo da Vinci in the portrait.

As they walked, Geri mentioned the payment. ‘Leonardo’ admitted that he expected the Italian government to compensate him “for the great service rendered.” He said he hadn’t taken the painting to make money. He had intended to return it to the land from which it had been stolen.

An amount was proposed. Geri would agree to pay only if Poggi could confirm the painting’s legitimacy.

They went upstairs into the room where ‘Leonardo’ had been staying. He opened his medium-sized suitcase, emptied it of its meager contents, and opened a false bottom. Inside waited Mona Lisa, wrapped in silk and marvelously preserved. Poggi studied the painting and confirmed that this was Louvre property.

Geri and Poggi contained their excitement in front of the thief. They fled the hotel with the painting and called the police. ‘Leonardo’ was napping when Florence officers came to take him.

He did not struggle, convinced that the government would recognize him as a hero.

Vincenzo Peruggia, Mona Lisa’s thief

Knight In Shining Armor

‘Leonardo’ cooperated with the police. He identified himself as thirty-two year old Vincenzo Peruggia. He lived in Paris, where he worked painting houses. He had worked at the Louvre as a glazier for two years.

Peruggia described himself as a patriot. He had stolen the Mona Lisa to avenge all the art pieces that had been taken from Italy by Napoleon during his painting plunder. Peruggia did not seem to know that, while Napoleon did steal many pieces of art, Mona Lisa was not one of them. She had been in France delighting kings and aristocrats long before Napoleon was born.

It was arranged that Mona Lisa would be given to the French ambassador. France allowed her to stay in Italy for two weeks. During this visit, thousands of Italians came on pilgrimage to see Leonardo’s most famous painting. Peruggia’s prediction that he would be a hero wasn’t far off: many Italians believed that he had done a great service to their country.

Conquering Hero?

Vincenzo Peruggia was on the list of Louvre workers that French police had investigated when Mona Lisa vanished. How come he was not a suspect from the beginning?

Peruggia had been summoned at the beginning for questioning but never appeared. A detective went to his apartment, searched it, and asked questions. Peruggia said he had been at work the morning when Mona Lisa vanished; if they had checked his alibi, they would learn that he arrived several hours late.

What about fingerprinting? There had been a flaw in Alphonse Bertillon’s profiling. He only classified his criminal records with right thumbprints, and the print on Mona Lisa’s frame had been a left thumbprint. Peruggia was therefore never linked to it.

Peruggia was not brought to trial until June 4, 1914. France did not press for harsh treatment; Italy was not keen to punish the man who had brought Mona Lisa for a brief visit home. He managed to rouse the sympathy of his compatriots, which must have had an influence on his absurdly short prison sentence.

He was given a sentence of one year and fifteen days. On July 19, it was reduced to seven months and nine days. When this brief punishment ended, he went on to start a paint shop.


I have tried to cover the disappearance of Mona Lisa and do justice to the story over the month of August. It’s impossible to give all of the details in a series of little blog posts. If you want to know more about this insane event in history, I encourage you to read Vanished Smile by R.A. Scotti.

Everything about Mona Lisa has a story behind it. I will continue to read about her because few paintings have had such long, unique histories. I am wrapping up my August Mona Lisa Month with this post, but I am not done getting to know the Queen of the Louvre.

I hope my articles have been helpful to you; they were great fun to write!

Mona Lisa’s Romantic Disappearance


Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R. A. Scotti is a book that helps put Mona Lisa’s fame into perspective. Most people know her as Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.

We can get a better grasp of her fame after learning about the drama that took place in 1911.

In August 1911, the Louvre Museum was stirred from its routine by horrific news. Usually displayed in the Salon de Carré, where she was visited by artists and suitors, Mona Lisa had vanished. Under the spot where the portrait had hung was a plaque reading her name, but she was nowhere to be found.

Her empty frame was discovered in one of the corridors, as well as the glass case meant to protect her from outsiders. A broken doorknob indicated a route of escape that the thief might have taken.

1910 Map of the Louvre

Pre-Theft Louvre

How was this possible in a museum containing so many treasures? The ugly truth is that the Louvre Museum before Mona Lisa’s theft was lax in security. It was understaffed and too large for there to be guards everywhere.

The director of the museum was fired after Mona Lisa’s disappearance.

In 1911, the Louvre had more exits available for thieves to slip through. Visitors were allowed to grab paintings for photographs without written consent. Curators and guards were so busy that none of them noticed Mona Lisa’s disappearance for three days.

She was last known to have been in the Salon de Carré on Sunday evening; her absence was not discovered until Tuesday morning.

Parisians were outraged that it had been so easy for the painting to disappear under guards’ very noses. The greatest available detective would be required to solve such a mystery.

Alphonse Bertillon was called in the very Tuesday that Mona Lisa’s disappearance was noticed.

Alphonse Bertillon, detective. He pioneered in using photography to help solve crimes.

Sherlock Holmes’ Hero

Alphonse Bertillon was Chief of the Judicial Identity of the Paris Prefecture. He was the closest they could get to Sherlock Holmes in this most Holmesian of cases.

In a short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of the Naval Treaty, Holmes tells Watson that he admires the French policeman Alphonse Bertillon. Naval Treaty was published in a collection of Holmesian short stories in 1893.

Sherlock uttered these words before the Mona Lisa disappeared. Was it a premonition?

Bertillon came with all of the tools of the trade. This included his magnifying glass, dusting powder, and a trail of assistants to photograph the scene. Photography of crime scenes was a new practice which Bertillon pioneered.

He examined Mona Lisa’s empty frame and the glass case that held her. Using his magnifying glass, he searched for evidence that could give a name to the heinous thief: fingerprints.

A perfect thumbprint was discovered on the glass case which had held Mona Lisa.

Paris, France: MONA LISA THEFT, 1911. The gap on the wall of the Carre Gallery of the Louvre Museum, Paris, where the Mona Lisa was exhibited before it was stolen 1911. ©Mary Evans Picture Library / The Image Works

Salon Full of Suspects

Louis Lepine, Prefect of the Seine, arranged for the theft to be repeated by two groups on a different painting of the same size.

The first group to recreate the theft was comprised of ordinary gendarmes. They struggled to remove the art from the frames and did a clumsy job of it. The second group was made up of Louvre workers–people familiar with the museum and comfortable handling art in their cases.

The Louvre workers removed the painting from its frame and case in moments. This provided clues for Bertillon—and a great deal of embarrassment for museum staff.

It suggested that the theft had been committed by someone who worked at the museum. He must have been familiar with the halls and glass cases, so that they wouldn’t be such obstacles.

Could a thief have been mingling with curators and guards long enough to plan a heist?

Seeking a Match

Lepine requested that a list be compiled naming everybody who’d had access to the museum between that Sunday and Tuesday.

The long window of time was discouraging. Whoever had stolen the painting could have escaped France by the time guards noticed her absence. He might be on a ship halfway across the world.

Proceedings continued, though officers began to doubt that Mona Lisa would ever be seen again.

Each Louvre custodian, curator, workman and photographer on Lepine’s list was fingerprinted and interrogated. One guard confessed that Mona Lisa had been left alone from eight to ten o’clock on Monday morning. He had been called away from the Salon de Carré to help move paintings in another part of the museum.

This gave the thief two hours’ free rein to remove the painting from its frame and flee.

Mona Lisa’s Lover

The guard then confessed an unnerving detail.

He had been seeing a young man pay weekly visits to the Mona Lisa. Sometimes this man would bring her flowers, as if they were lovers. Could this obsessed visitor have been alone with the object of his affections that Monday? Was he deranged enough to have stolen her?

This revelation provided the Louvre with a way to save face. The thief was not necessarily one of their staff; it could have been one of her unstable courtiers. While police continued to question museum workers, the public was told about Mona Lisa’s admirer.

It was the sort of story that the media cannot resist. Chicago Tribune commented wryly on the matter:

So, Mona Lisa has another lover! … Now, after four and a half centuries, Leonardo’s subtle lady wins another lover, and her tantalizing discretion quite forgot, she flees with her wooer. Ten thousand dollars for her return, cries Paris. … No one man should have exclusive right to feed on that mysterious loveliness.


This ends the first part of my series on Mona Lisa’s disappearance. After I’d read Vanished Smile, I struggled for a way to sum up the story for my blog.

When Mona Lisa disappeared, the world reacted in outrage. When newspapers and the French government offered rewards for her return, false paintings were provided by people hoping for money. Billionaires like J. P. Morgan and artists like Pablo Picasso were pulled into the matter.

To leave out one surreal detail does this story a disservice. There is more to the Mona Lisa than her mysterious smile; there’s a reason why she now has a bulletproof chamber at the museum.

Behind every great story is an even greater story; the Mona Lisa’s is no exception. I will post more about the investigation in a few days.