When Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire Were Accused of Stealing the Mona Lisa (1911)

If you vis­it the Lou­vre today, you’ll notice two phe­nom­e­na in par­tic­u­lar: the omnipres­ence of secu­ri­ty, and the throng of vis­i­tors obscur­ing the Mona Lisa. If you’d vis­it­ed just over a cen­tu­ry ago, nei­ther would have been the case. And if you hap­pened to vis­it on August 22nd, 1911, you would­n’t have encoun­tered Leonar­do’s famed por­trait at all. That morn­ing, writes Messy Nessy, “Parisian artist Louis Béroud, famous for paint­ing and sell­ing his copies of famous art­works, walked into the Lou­vre to begin a copy of the Mona Lisa. When he arrived into the Salon Car­ré where the Da Vin­ci had been on dis­play for the past five years, he found four iron pegs and no paint­ing.”

Béroud “the­atri­cal­ly alert­ed the sleepy guards who fum­bled around for sev­er­al hours under the assump­tion the paint­ing might have been bor­rowed for clean­ing or pho­tograph­ing, until it was final­ly con­firmed the Mona Lisa had been stolen.”

The imme­di­ate mea­sures tak­en: “The Lou­vre was closed for an entire week, muse­um admin­is­tra­tors lost their jobs, the French bor­ders were closed as every ship and train was searched and a reward of 25,000 francs was announced for the paint­ing.”

High on the list of sus­pects, thanks to the word of an art thief not involved in the heist named Joseph Géry Pieret: none oth­er than Pablo Picas­so and Guil­laume Apol­li­naire. Con­fess­ing to his habit of pur­loin­ing small items from the Lou­vre, which then took no great pains to pro­tect the cul­tur­al assets with­in its walls, Pieret informed the police that he had sold a cou­ple of small Iber­ian stat­ues to a “painter-friend.” Pieret, writes Art­sy’s Ian Shank, “had left a clue — a nom de plume in one of his pub­lished con­fes­sions, pulled straight from the writ­ings of avant-garde poet Apol­li­naire. (As police would lat­er dis­cov­er, Pieret was in fact the writer’s for­mer sec­re­tary.)”

As the pow­ers that be knew, “Apol­li­naire was a devout mem­ber of Picasso’s mod­ernist entourage la bande de Picas­so — a group of artis­tic fire­brands also known around town as the ‘Wild Men of Paris.’ Here, police believed, was a ring of art thieves sophis­ti­cat­ed enough to swipe the Mona Lisa.” Though the Span­ish-born painter and Ital­ian-born poet had noth­ing to do with the theft of the Mona Lisa, Picas­so had indeed bought those stolen sculp­tures from Pieret, and in a pan­ic near­ly threw them into the Seine.

“Apol­li­naire con­fessed to every­thing,” writes Shank, while Picas­so “wept open­ly in court, hys­ter­i­cal­ly alleg­ing at one point that he had nev­er even met Apol­li­naire. Del­uged with con­tra­dic­to­ry and non­sen­si­cal tes­ti­mo­ny the pre­sid­ing Judge Hen­ri Dri­oux threw out the case, ulti­mate­ly dis­miss­ing both men with lit­tle more than a stern admo­ni­tion.” Two years lat­er, the iden­ti­ty of the real Mona Lisa thief came to light: a Lou­vre employ­ee named Vin­cen­zo Perug­gia (shown right above), who had eas­i­ly smug­gled the can­vas out and kept it in a trunk until such time — so he insist­ed — as he could repa­tri­ate the mas­ter­piece to its, and his, home­land.

All this makes for an enter­tain­ing chap­ter in the his­to­ry of art crime, but if you still believe that Picas­so must have had a hand in the Mona Lisa’s dis­ap­pear­ance, have a look at “All the Evi­dence That Picas­so Actu­al­ly Stole the Mona Lisa.” Com­piled by the Huff­in­g­ton Post’s Sara Boboltz, the list includes such facts as “He was liv­ing in France at the time,” “He’d tech­ni­cal­ly pur­chased stolen art­works before” — those lit­tle Iber­ian sculp­tures — and “He loved art, duh.” None could deny that last point, just as none could deny the Mona Lisa’s endur­ing sta­tus as some­thing of a Holy Grail for art thieves. But what mod­ern-day Perug­gia — or Picas­so, or Apol­li­naire, or as some the­o­ries hold, Béroud — would dare make an attempt on it now?

via Men­tal Floss/Art­sy/Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Ado­ra­tion of the Mona Lisa Begins with Theft

Mona Lisa Self­ie: A Mon­tage of Social Media Pho­tos Tak­en at the Lou­vre and Put on Insta­gram

Orig­i­nal Por­trait of the Mona Lisa Found Beneath the Paint Lay­ers of da Vinci’s Mas­ter­piece

The Post­cards That Picas­so Illus­trat­ed and Sent to Jean Cocteau, Apol­li­naire & Gertrude Stein

When Ger­man Per­for­mance Artist Ulay Stole Hitler’s Favorite Paint­ing & Hung it in the Liv­ing Room of a Turk­ish Immi­grant Fam­i­ly (1976)

Take a Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Tour of the World’s Stolen Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • gwr says:

    This sto­ry also comes up in a piece in this week’s NewYork­er about a present-day French art thief. In the arti­cle it says that the Mona Lisa had been a rel­a­tive­ly obscure work by Da Vin­ci pri­or to being stolen and that the hype gen­er­at­ed by the rob­bery is what made it world famous. It’s also inter­est­ing in con­sid­er­ing Ducham­p’s L.H.O.O.Q., cre­at­ed a few years after the theft and the fact that there still remains some dis­pute about the authen­tic­i­ty of the paint­ing in the Lou­vre.

  • Heather Wells says:

    Looks like a res­i­dent in Iowa, deceased.individual

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