Stealing the Mona Lisa
Exactly 100 years later, a documentary film uncovers new insights into the theft of the masterpiece
By David D’Arcy. Web only
Published online: 17 August 2011
New York. On 21 August 1911, someone entered the Salon Carre of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, removed the Mona Lisa from the wall, unfastened the clamps holding the panel to its frame, and walked off. A painstaking police investigation followed, as newspapers fumed over such a brazen theft. Police failed to capture the thief until he tried to sell the painting in Florence more than two years later.
Stealing the Mona Lisa is the stuff of lore and legend. The daring theft of the world’s most famous painting was assumed to be the work of a savvy operator. Yet the truth was far different. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was lifted by an immigrant housepainter, who didn’t know what to do with the painting once it was in his hands. The unglamorous facts of the case didn’t keep the crime from turning into a myth.
It fell to Joe Medeiros, the former head writer for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”, to readdress the high-profile robbery in a new feature documentary, “The Missing Piece”. A first-time film-maker, Medeiros sets out to unravel the many theories that have fueled books about the crime.
That job also took decades for Medeiros. Learning of the theft years ago, he began a screenplay about it. Failing to complete it, he took other jobs and eventually signed on with Jay Leno and moved with the comedian to Los Angeles. When he retired from writing jokes, Medeiros, now 60, turned his obsession into a documentary. The film was not finished in time to be publicly released on the crime’s 21 August centennial, but copies were given to journalists.
In the first-person style of Michael Moore, Medeiros chases his subject. Unlike Moore, to whom people won’t talk, Medeiros finds people eager to discuss the Vincenzo Peruggia legend—authors of books on the theft, art historians and art cops, Louvre curators, and Peruggia’s 84-year-old daughter, Celestina, who lives in her father’s birthplace, the village of Dumenza, north of Milan near the French border. He died when she was two.
In a film that looks a lot like on-the-job training, familiar facts and new ones emerge. Peruggia wasn’t a suave charmer, but a housepainter of five feet three inches who joined a flood of Italians seeking work in France. His painting trade had already afflicted him with lead poisoning, which doctors said diminished his mental capacities and his judgement. He felt persecuted by anti-Italian sentiment in France at the time, and by the epithet “sale macaroni” (dirty macaroni).
Thanks to documents from the Paris archive, Medeiros reconstructs the theft itself—part plan, part opportunism. Entering the Salle Carre of the Louvre on a Monday, when the closed museum had only 12 guards on duty, Peruggia seems to have decided to steal the Mona Lisa, among other Italian paintings, because of its small size. Medeiros shows that Peruggia could not have hidden the painting under his white worker’s smock, as was assumed, but wrapped it up in the smock and walked out. At the time, signs were posted in French museums asking visitors to wake up guards who had fallen asleep.
One witness, a plumber, saw Peruggia in the gallery. Another saw him walk down the street and throw away a doorknob that fell off the gallery door, locking him inside for a time. His fingerprints were on the glass that covered the painting, but French police made no connection, despite Peruggia’s two prior arrests for minor infractions.
The French suspected German thieves. Some assumed that painting was sold to rich Americans in New York. Picasso, who sketched purloined objects, was questioned. His pal Apollinaire was locked up on suspicion. When Peruggia resurfaced more than two years later, he had teamed up with a Florentine dealer to sell the picture to the Uffizi for 500 thousand lire—more than $2m today. Once Uffizi specialists authenticated the work, Peruggia was arrested. At his trial in 1914, Italians rallied around the notion that a non-descript Everyman had stolen the Mona Lisa to return a pillaged work to Italy. Yet the picture had been bought from Leonardo by King Francis I of France. However, the patriotic Robin Hood myth lives on.
Italy returned the painting to France and a court sentenced Peruggia to one year and 15 days in prison. He would serve a bit more than seven months, far less that the two years that he later spent as an Austrian prisoner in the first world war.
“The Missing Piece” is an American movie, so a happy ending should be somewhere over the horizon. Peruggia’s daughter Celestina is in tears when her father’s letters, seized by police for the trial, reveal that Vincenzo hoped to make a killing on the theft and share the money with his family.
It was about money, and also about fame. Back in Paris, where he spent the rest of his life after the first world war as Pietro Peruggia, he took his young wife to the Louvre. “The shingles on the wall will rot, but my name will remain famous,” he told her. Nobody informed the Parisian gravediggers who removed Peruggia’s remains from his tomb and placed them in a bone locker.
Joe Medeiros, who had hoped his screenplay about the theft would make him rich, feels a kinship with Peruggia, and has arranged for a memorial plaque in Dumenza (undercutting a neighbouring village’s claim that one if its native sons planned the theft). “To me, he wasn’t a criminal. He was tired of a job that was making him physically ill. He hated being looked down on,” says the earnest American. “If the town of Dumenza can remember Mussolini, why not its most infamous son?”
Sentimental and often clumsy, as befitting a first film, “The Missing Piece” nonetheless has unearthed facts that have eluded trained historians. Joe Medeiros promises more of those in an eventual DVD release. So far the documentary has no commercial distribution.
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