The true story of the stranger-than-fiction heist of the Mona Lisa in 1911.
No visitor to the Louvre can avoid the throngs of tourists and art lovers who line up to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Given the crowds, it will come as a great surprise to those who do not know the story that, in August 1911, this icon of Western civilization vanished from the museum without a trace.Skip to next paragraph
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Even more amazing, no one noticed it was missing for more than 24 hours and it was more than two years before the work was seen again.
The story of this theft, recovery, and enduring mystery is the subject of Vanished Smile, a fresh, engaging book by R.A. Scotti. The book is equal parts art history and crime caper. This rollicking tale makes for fascinating reading in large part because, as Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities. Truth isn’t.”
Stealing the painting was easy. The work was not anchored to the wall and the thief simply lifted it off and walked away. After discarding the glass case that protected the painting, he simply left the building. There were almost no clues and the police assumed they were dealing with a sophisticated band or art thieves. The French borders were sealed in an effort to prevent the painting from leaving the country. Visitors lined up to see the empty space on the wall. The world waited.
Two leading members of the Paris avant-garde were quickly identified as suspects. An informer told a French newspaper that he had previously stolen items from the Louvre for the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (who had signed a manifesto promising to “Burn Down the Louvre”) and his close friend, Pablo Picasso. Both men had, in fact, been in possession of works stolen from the Louvre. Apollinaire was quickly arrested and jailed for six days and Picasso was brought in for questioning. But by the time the police arrived, they had disposed of the contraband and were released.
Then the trail went stone cold. There was never a ransom note and many art lovers feared that the painting had been lost for good. Suddenly, in December 1913, the Mona Lisa resurfaced in Florence. It was recovered by the Italians – much to the chagrin of the French – and the world rejoiced. After being put briefly on display in Florence, Rome, and Milan, the painting was returned to the Louvre.