Great Crimes John Escott - chapter 2
The Mona Lisa Robbery
At seven o’clock on the morning of Monday, August 21, 1911, three cleaners in the Louvre museum, in Paris, were walking through one of the rooms – the Salon Carre. The three men stopped to look at one of the world’s most famous paintings – the Mona Lisa.
‘This is the most valuable picture in the world,’ said one of the men. ‘They say it’s worth one and a half million francs.’
After staring at the famous smile for a moment or two, the three men then walked on to the Grand Gallery, which was the next room, to continue with some repair work. It was 8.35 a.m. before they passed through the Salon Carre again, and one of the men noticed that the Mona Lisa had now gone.
‘They’ve taken it away,’ he laughed. ‘They’re afraid we’ll steal it!’
The other men laughed with him, and went back to their work. It was not unusual for someone to move a painting in the gallery. They were often taken away to be photographed, and then put back later, so the three cleaners did not think any more about it.
At 7.20 the next morning, Poupardin, one of the Louvre guards, passed through the Salon Carre and noticed that the Mona Lisa was not in its place. He, too, thought someone had taken it away to be photographed.
At 9 a.m. a man called Louis Beroud arrived at the museum. He was a painter, and was painting a picture of the Salon Carre.
‘Where is the Mona Lisa?’ he asked Poupardin.
‘It’s being photographed,’ replied the guard.
Beroud was annoyed. He wanted to continue his work, but he decided to wait for the return of the famous painting.
He waited all morning.
‘What are they doing with it?’ he asked himself. Then, early that afternoon, he told Poupardin to go and ask the photographer to send back the painting. ‘I don’t have much more time,’ he said.
Poupardin went away – and came back quickly.
‘The picture isn’t there!’ he said excitedly. ‘They don’t know anything about it!’ And he hurried away to find his boss – Georges Benedite.
At 3 p.m. that afternoon, people were asked to leave the Louvre. ‘The museum is closing,’ they were told, but were not given any explanation. It was not until they read the newspapers the next day that most of them discovered the reason.
Someone had stolen the Mona Lisa!
The museum was closed for a week. Police believed that the famous painting might still be hidden somewhere inside, and they began to search. Everyone working at the museum had their fingerprints taken.
Then the police found the empty frame from the Mona Lisa on some back stairs. Slowly, they began to put together their own ‘picture’ of what had happened.
The thief came to the museum on Sunday, August 20 and hid in the building after the galleries closed. At 7.30 a.m. the next morning he took the Mona Lisa, then went into another room and down the stairs where the police later found the frame. He stopped to take the painting out of the frame, then went on to a door which led into a courtyard. The door was locked so he had to take off the doorknob and break it open. He had only managed to take off the doorknob when he heard a noise, so he pushed the doorknob into his pocket, and sat on the stairs. A man working for the museum walked by. He said later that he thought the man on the stairs was one of the museum cleaners, and he unlocked and opened the door for him.
The thief went out into the courtyard, walked across it and opened an unlocked door that led into the street. He ran off towards the Pont du Carrousel, throwing the doorknob away as he ran. (The police found it later.)
When the Louvre opened again, crowds hurried to look at the empty place on the wall of the Salon Carre. They could not believe their eyes. The Mona Lisa really had been stolen!
Police questioned hundreds of people, searched hundreds of houses, flats and rooms, took fingerprints and talked to other criminals. They also found a thumbprint on the glass in the empty picture frame. But they did not find the Mona Lisa, and as time went on the people of France began to believe that they would never again see the famous picture they loved so much.
Then, one morning in November, in 1913, Alfredo Geri, a man who bought and sold paintings, opened a letter in his office in Florence, in Italy. The letter was from Paris, from someone who signed his name as ‘Leonard’.
The writer said that he was an Italian living in Paris. He said that he had stolen the Mona Lisa and wanted to return it to Italy, where it belonged, and where it had been before it was ‘stolen’ during the war with France in the nineteenth century.
At first Geri thought the letter was probably from a madman, but to be sure he showed it to his friend Giovanni Poggi at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. They decided to write to Leonard and ask him to bring the painting to Milan.
On Wednesday, December 10, a thin young man with a small dark moustache arrived at Geri’s office. He told Geri that the Mona Lisa was in his hotel room, and that he wanted 500,000 lire (100,000 dollars) for the picture.
Next day, Geri and Poggi went to the young man’s room in the Hotel Tripoli-Italia – and there was the famous painting. Poggi asked if he could take it to the Uffizi Gallery and look at it together with photographs of the real Mona Lisa. The young man agreed, and the three of them went to the gallery.
Later, the young man went back to his hotel – and was arrested by Italian detectives.
The young thief’s real name was Vincenzo Perugia, and he was a house painter. He was actually one of the many people questioned by the French police not long after the painting was stolen, because he had once been employed by the museum. They had searched his room at the time, but had found nothing. (Was someone hiding the painting for him?)
Perugia had been in trouble with the law before – for a robbery. But his fingerprints, kept by the police, only showed his right thumb, and the thumbprint from the glass in the empty frame had been a print of the left thumb.
Now, the police searched his Paris rooms once more, and this time they found a 1910 diary with a list of the names of people who bought and sold paintings in America, Germany and Italy.
They also questioned two other Italian house painters; they suspected them of hiding the picture at the time Perugia’s rooms were first searched. Finally they had to let them go.
The trial of Vincenzo Perugia began on June 4, 1914 in Florence. When questioned, this is what he told the judge:
‘I entered the Louvre about seven o’clock in the morning. Without being seen, I was able to get into the Salon Carre. I took the Mona Lisa; took it out of its frame, then left.’
‘How did you leave?’ asked the judge.
‘The same way I came in,’ answered Perugia.
He was sent to prison for one year and fifteen days, but this was later shortened to seven months.
Some people believe that Perugia was working with other criminals, one of whom was a painter, and that they offered the missing Mona Lisa to rich Americans who collected paintings. Each of the American collectors bought their Mona Lisa secretly, not realising that it was forged by one of the criminals and that other forgeries were being sold, too. Could it be true? We may never know.
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