Mona Lisa heist: how do you steal the world’s most famous painting?

Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world, partly thanks to this crime. In 1911, it went missing for two years, seemingly snatched by an invisible thief. The police were confounded, the press enchanted. They were both asking the same question – how was the Mona Lisa stolen?

People gather around the Mona Lisa painting after its return in January 1914

In 1911, the Mona Lisa shot to global stardom when she became the victim of one the most daring art heists in history. Overnight, the painting seemingly disappeared into thin air – and the police were baffled.

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Modernist enemies of traditional art were suspected of the crime, with the finger of blame pointed at avant-garde poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire (who was arrested and then released) as well as Pablo Picasso.

For two years the whereabouts of the painting remained a mystery. Then in November 1913, the thief – a petty criminal named Vincenzo Peruggia – contacted a Florentine art dealer and offered to bring him the painting for a reward of 500,000 lire.

Who stole the Mona Lisa?

Peruggia had moved to Paris in 1908 and had worked at the Louvre for some time. Dressed in a white smock worn by Louvre employees, he had hidden inside the gallery until it closed for the night. He then removed the painting from its frame and strolled out with it hidden under his smock when the museum opened as usual the following morning.

The police record of Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the Mona Lisa
The police record of Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the Mona Lisa. The painting was missing for two years, and for most of that time it hung in Peruggia’s apartment (Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

The theft was genius in its simplicity – Peruggia, in his regulation smock, had attracted no notice and was out of the area by the time the theft was realised. His reason for the theft? Peruggia believed that the painting had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon and that he was simply returning it to its true home in Italy.

He was arrested, but served just eight months in prison thanks to a sympathetic Italian tribunal and a psychiatrist who testified that he was “intellectually deficient”. Much rejoicing accompanied Mona Lisa’s return to Paris, while Peruggia became something of a hero to the Italian people, receiving love letters and cakes from female fans whilst in prison.

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This content first appeared in the Christmas 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed