The patriotic thief

The patriotic thief

Different Strokes

The patriotic thief

Date: Sunday, August 20, 1911. Location: the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Vincenzo Perugia, the 29-year-old Italian workman-carpenter employed at Louvre knows that the museum would be closed the next day (Monday being the weekly holiday). He finishes the day’s work and after the galleries are closed, goes to a tiny broom closet and hides himself there for the night.

Monday, August 21, 1911.

Perugia comes out from his hiding place, saunters into the empty Salon Carré, removes from the wall its most precious work, rips the painting from the protective frame, puts it under his smock and walks out.

He reaches his room, barely a mile from Louvre, and deposits the prize loot — Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece Mona Lisa — in a small trunk. The world’s most famous art heist is thus completed — smoothly, effortlessly, with clinical precision.

Tuesday, August 22, 1911.
Parisian artist Louis Béroud (who makes a living by creating copies of famous paintings and selling them to tourists) comes to Salon Carre wanting to make a copy of Mona Lisa, the painting which has been on display at the Louvre for the past five years. Irritated at finding the bare wall with four hooks, he alerts a sleepy guard.

Slowly but surely a frantic search for the painting begins. Sixty investigators are at the Louvre by noon.

The entire museum is rummaged around thoroughly for a week; all they can find is the abandoned frame which once held Mona Lisa. Administrators of the museum lose their jobs.

The news of the theft of the prized painting spreads like wild fire. Parisians are devastated and the entire nation mourns the loss of its darling art piece. The country's borders are closed, every ship and train searched. A reward of 25,000 francs is announced for the finder of the painting.

Rumours run thick and fast. Many suspects are questioned. Among them is Rome-born, Paris-settled poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880 – 1918), who is apprehended, arrested and put in jail.

Apollinaire, in turn, points a finger at his friend Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) who supposedly had a penchant for stolen stuff. He is promptly picked up by the police for questioning.

In the open court, Picasso is subjected to intense interrogation by the judge, but the young artist somehow keeps his nerve and asserts his innocence. Eventually, both Picasso and Apollinaire are let off.

Mona Lisa — the 30 inch by 21 inch masterpiece painted by da Vinci in early 16th century — lies in Perugia’s trunk for the next two years.

December 10, 1913, Florence
Perugia is in Italy with the painting. He contacts Alfredo Geri, an antiques’ dealer and offers Mona Lisa for a ‘reward’ of 500,000 lire — for getting it back to the ‘homeland’.
Wanting to know whether the painting is genuine, Geri calls his friend Giovanne Poggi, director of Uffizi Gallery; both of them go to Perugia’s room at Hotel Tripoli in Florence.

Perugia opens his trunk. Among many pitiful belongings — which include a pair of underwear, some old shoes, and a shirt — is the painting of the lady with iconic smile, wrapped in red cloth. When they see the wonderfully preserved Mona Lisa and the official Louvre Museum seals on the back, the visitors are left dumbfounded.

Within hours, following a tip off from Geri and Poggi, Florence’s chief of police and several detectives arrive at the Tripoli to confiscate the painting and arrest Perugia.
Mona Lisa stays in Italy for the next two months and is exhibited in different cities where thousands of people throng to get a glimpse. Finally, the work is packed and sent back to Paris.

Sunday, January 4, 1914
The Mona Lisa is finally and ceremoniously restored to her rightful place in the Salon Carré, Louvre.

Thursday, June 4, 1914, Florence
The trial of Vincenzo Perugia begins. He turns emotional, hysterical and argues with the judge, his lawyer and the prosecutors. He tells them that he loved the painting, felt the urge to ‘rescue’ it from France and therefore his actions are to be viewed purely as patriotic.

Outside the courtroom, Perugia has already become an instant hero, with cheering crowds on his side. While in jail he receives many love letters, bottles of wine and specially baked cakes from women which make him feel proud and important.

Annoyed with his unruly behaviour and contradictory statements, the court summons a psychiatrist who finds Perugia to be ‘intellectually deficient’. The court is somewhat convinced and gives him a lenient sentence and releases him shortly thereafter.
Over the next few years, Perugia goes on to serve the Italian army during World War I, gets married, returns to France and opens a paint store. When he dies on October 8, 1925 in the town of Annemasse, France, the thief of Mona Lisa is just 44.

Perugia is, however, not forgotten today. Contrarily, his saga continues. As recently as in August this year, his native town of Dumenza, north of Milan, Italy honoured him with a play “The Trial of Vincenzo Perugia” as part of a summer theatre festival. No prizes for guessing that in the play Perugia is  portrayed as a patriot!

Stolen Picassos
Paradoxically, Picasso, who was once accused of stealing Mona Lisa, is the most stolen artist in the world today.

London-based The Art Loss Register (ALR), the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectables, reports that the number of Picasso’s works which have been stolen exceeds 600.

ALR also enlists the unique case of his painting ‘Woman in white reading a Book’ which was stolen in 1940 and recovered only after 65 years!

Noah Charney, art history professor at the American University of Rome and founder of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, also confirms that Picasso is far and away the most frequently stolen artist in history.

ARCA’s website reveals some startling facts. It asserts that the minimum number of reported art thefts worldwide each year is 50,000; that  art crime represents the third highest grossing criminal enterprise worldwide, behind only drugs and arms trafficking; and that art crime brings in $2-6 billion per year, most of which goes to fund international organised crime syndicates.

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