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21 August 1911: The Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre

The day the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre in 1914.
The day the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre in 1914. / SUR
  • Picasso and his poet friend Apollinaire were suspected of the theft by the police

On August 21 1911, the Mona Lisa vanished under mysterious circumstances from the Louvre in Paris. Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had been working at the gallery, went in at around 7am. He took the painting from the Salon Carré where it hung to a nearby service staircase, where he removed the protective case and frame. It is believed that Vincenzo left the Louvre, concealing the painting under his coat, though much remains unknown about the theft of the masterpiece.

Vincenzo Peruggia fooled the police for two years by making them suspect famous artists, including Pablo Picasso. By that time, the Malaga-born artist had already been living in Barcelona and in 1904 had finally settled in Paris. In the French capital the young Picasso mingled in bohemian artist circles.

One of his friends was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose name appeared in the press at the time thanks to his former secretary, Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret. With the hope of being rewarded in cash for exclusive information, Pieret went to the Paris-Journal newspaper and said that he had lifted art from the Louvre before and had given the works to "friends".

He mentioned two Iberian sculptures he had indeed stolen in 1907. Pieret added that these artefacts were sold to the painter Picasso for 50 francs each because the talented Spaniard had used them for inspiration in creating his work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Anyone in possession of these sculptures might have attracted the attention of police investigating the theft of the Mona Lisa. To avoid any deeper trouble, Picasso and Apollinaire packed the Iberian sculptures into a suitcase, with the intention of throwing them into the river at night. Once at the Seine, however, the art lovers were unable to destroy the works, and the following morning Apollinaire visited the Journal. He gave them the statues, but demanded the newspaper give him anonymity.

However, the police detained the poet and, later, Pablo Picasso was ordered to appear before a magistrate. In the court, when Picasso was asked if he knew Apollinaire, the frightened painter muttered that he had never seen him before. In any case the judge determined that the situation had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa's disappearance and threw out the case against Apollinaire and Picasso. Two years later, both men were totally cleared of any possible connection to the crime committed in the Louvre on 21 August 1911.

In 1913, the police discovered that the Mona Lisa had been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, who said that he had just wanted to return the masterpiece, stolen by Napoleon, to its homeland.