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Sunday, August 21, 2011

100 years ago Vincenzo Peruggia snatched the Mona Lisa from the Louvre



August 21, 1911, a black haired man with a big moustache, medium height, strong-sturdy build, dressed in dark work clothes and a straw hat is spoted by a witness carrying a package. That man is Vincenzo Peruggia and he's carrying the famous Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa or La Gioconda.
Paris and the world are in shock, how could that happen ?

Born in Dumenza, Italy, on October 8, 1881, Peruggia started earning his living since the early age of twelve working as house painter, carpenter and handyman.
Like many others with similiar skills, he emigrated to France to try a better living.
However he didn't feel welcomed in a country where French called him "mangeur de macaroni" (macaroni eater) and teased him about his accent.
He also held a strong belief that many of the art treasures in the Louvre had been looted by Napoleon from Italy.

During the time that Peruggia lived in Paris, he was involved in minor offences: an attempted robber in 1908, being released twenty four hours later, and a dispute with a prostitute in 1909 where the illegal possession of a knife got him eight days in jail.

Vincenzo Peruggia, who was employed by the Paris firm of carpenters, worked on the MonaLisa's wooden shadow box for three weeks, which permited him to familiarize with the Louvre's layout, entrances and exits, and most importantly with the security guards routines.

The museum was always closed on Mondays for cleaning, repairs and other necessary tasks, and on that day of August 21, 1911, Peruggia went briskly into the premise and reported directly to Salon Carré, where at least ten men were working nearby.
He snatched the painting off of the wall and carried it to a service stairway, there he took the painting out of its wooden frame and tossed both the frame and protective glass covering.
He found out that the door at the end of the stairs was closed and had the brilliant idea of removing the door's knob and putting it in his pocket. When a plumber named Sauvet walked by, he adressed to him saying "Look! Some idiot stole the door knob! How can we get out now?". Sauvet used his key to open the door and the Mona Lisa was now out of the museum.
Once outside, Peruggia tossed the doorknob over a fence and fled.

On Tuesday, August 22, 1911, the French artist named Louis Beroud, who frequently painted the rooms of the Louvre, set up his easel in the Salon Carre' at the Louvre to paint a picture of the room. On this day the Mona Lisa, which hung between Titian's Allegory and Corregio's Betrothal of Saint Catherine, was missing. Annoyed at the paintings absence, he approached a guard named Poupardin and inquired about its return. Poupardin assumed that the painting had been removed for photographing; it was very common for a painting to be moved here and there with very little controls in place. A short time later, after some badgering by Beroud, Poupardin went searching for the masterpiece. By 11h00, the guard that was entrusted by the populace of France to protect a national treasure, had realized that the painting was missing. Poupardin could only declare "C'est parti!".

When Perugia fled with the painting, he was observed by a witness who gave a discription of the art thieft and permited the police to establishe a time of the theft, as well as the direction of flight that the suspect took.

The legendary French criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon, who was in charge of the case, lifted a thumbprint from the glass case that was left in the stairway.
However in that era, only the right hands of offenders were printed, and although Bertillon maintained files and fingerprints on over 750,000 criminals, the thumbprint that was lifted from the painting's glass case was from a left hand.
All employees, past and present, were interrogated and fingerprinted, including Vincenzo Peruggia, interviewed on Nov. 26, 1911, by Inspector Brunet. He was cleared after convincing the inspector that he was an innocent, hardworking man.

Also Pablo Picasso and Gillaume Apollinaire became suspects in the MonaLisa's theft after they were fingered for buying valuable statuettes that were stolen from a Louvre storeroom. They were both brought in by police for questioning.

Peruggia continued to work in Paris, where he built a trunk with a false bottom and hid the painting in it, wrapped in a red cloth. The carpenter transported the painting in this trunk by train to Florence, where he arrived on December 10, 1913 and stayed at the Hotel-Tripoli-Italia, on Via Panzoni; room 20 on the third floor.

From there, Peruggia contacted Alfredo Geri, the owner of La Galleria Borgognissanti. He sent him a letter stating: "I am an Italian patriot that was seized by the desire to return to my Italy one of the numerous treasures that Napolean stole from her."
The two met in Geri's office, along with the director of the Uffizi, Giovanni Poggi. Both Poggi and Geri understood immediately that the painting was the original, but pretended to have doubts. They convinced Peruggia to let them have the painting over night to have expert testing conducted at the Uffizi. Peruggia complied and the two departed with the painting and immediately notified the authorities. They claimed that Peruggia requested 500,000 Lira for the work (which Peruggia, who still wished to portray himself as the selfless patriot, denied in the trial that followed). Peruggia was arrested on Dec 11, 1913, by Francesco Tarantelli.



The Italian Goverment recused his extradition and he was sentenced to 1 year and 15 days for his crime. On appeal his sentence was reduced to 7 months and 9 days (another article with sligthly different facts, mentions 7 months and 4 days in Florence's Le Murate prison).

The Mona Lisa was displayed at the Uffizi, the Borghese Gallery, Villa Medici, Farnese Palace and the Brera Museum, and was viewed by tens of thousands of Italians. On January 4, 1914, after a well protected train ride back to Paris, the masterpiece was re-hung in the Salon Carré.



In January 1914, Alfredo Geri was awarded a 25,000 Franc Reward and received the Rosette of France's Legion d'Honneur.

Vincenzo Peruggia returned to Dumenza a hero. He served honourably in the Italian army during WWI. In 1921, he married an Italian girl, and in spite of his alleged distaste of the French, moved his family to France, where he opened a hardware store outside of Paris. He led a quiet, prosperous life in France and according to his daughter, Celestina, he died at age 44, of a heart attack in Haute-Savoie in 1925.

It's mentioned that con man Marqué Eduardo de Valfierno, who partnered with Yves Chaudron, a conservator and master forger, contacted Peruggia to steal the Mona Lisa, so they could sell it for a fortune. Chaudron did not really want to sell the painting, nor did he even care where it ended up.
Valfierno's plans were for Chaudron to make several copies and sell all of them as the original to foreign collectors.
If the Mona Lisa was ever recovered and returned to the Louvre, he would assure his customers that the Louvre was displaying a fake because it could not admit losing a national treasure of France.

So, was Peruggia an eccentric romantic, a selfless patriot, a noble idealist, or just another greedy thief? No matter how you view him, his daring crime marks the beginning of a turbulent century that is marked by huge art thefts, massive war looting, and the development of a ten billion dollar a year trade in illicit antiquities.

This article is inspired and contains excerpts from yourBrushwiththeLaw.

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