Vincenzo Perugia, Thief of the Mona Lisa

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Vincenzo Perugia, Thief of the Mona Lisa


By: Anonymous

Date: c. 1900

Source: Corbis.

About the Photographer: This image is the Italian police photograph and fingerprint record for the Italian Vincenzo Perugia. The photographer is unknown.


This image is the police photograph and fingerprint record from the arrest of Vincenzo Perugia (born 1881), one of the most famous art thieves in history. In 1911, Perugia walked into the room in the Louvre Museum, Paris, which housed the Mona Lisa, the famous portrait of a smiling woman painted in 1503–1507 by the Italian painter Leonard da Vinci (1452–1519). Perugia had worked briefly as a carpenter for the museum in 1908 and was familiar with its layout. Security measures were minimal at the time: Perugia simply took the painting off its hook, hid it under his smock (a loose overgarment worn to protect the clothes while working), and walked out. In a nearby service stairwell, he paused to cut the painting from its bulky frame, then left the building with the piece hidden under his clothing. (The Mona Lisa is painted on a wooden panel, not on canvas, and is only seventy by fifty-three centimeters (thirty by twenty-one inches).

Perugia took the painting back to Italy hidden in the bottom of a trunk and kept it in his bedroom for two years. During this period, there was tremendous national grief in France, and many thousands of visitors came to view the empty spot on the wall where the Mona Lisa had hung. Speculation about its fate was rampant: Pablo Picasso was questioned as a suspect in the theft. Eventually, becoming impatient with the accomplice who had promised to pay him for the painting, Perugia tried to sell the painting to an art dealer in Florence, Italy. He asked for five hundred thousand lire and assurances that the painting would never be returned to France. The art dealer, suspicious of fraud, called the director of a Florence art gallery and asked him to come with him to the stranger's room to see the supposed treasure. The two art experts were amazed to see Perugia produce the Mona Lisa from the bottom of a trunk full of "wretched belongings." Telling Perugia that they would have to take the painting to the museum to have its authenticity verified before paying him, they carried it away with them and hastily compared it to photographs from the Louvre. Its authenticity was confirmed, and the police were sent to arrest Perugia.

For two months, the Mona Lisa toured Italy and was viewed by tens of thousands. Perugia was put on trial in Florence. He claimed that his motivation for stealing the painting had been patriotic, that he had fallen in love with its beauty and could not rest until it was restored to its native land. Perugia was apparently unaware that the reason the Mona Lisa was in France to begin with was that Leonardo da Vinci himself had sold it to King Francois I of France for three thousand gold coins. Perugia rose at once to hero status and received love letters, cakes, and bottles of wine in jail. A sympathetic jury sentenced him to seven months in jail: since he had already been held for almost eight, he was released immediately.



See primary source image.


Although Perugia alleged patriotism as a motive for his theft of the Mona Lisa, the motive for most art theft is the motive for most other theft: money. Estimates of how much art is stolen around the world every year range from five billion dollars to ten billion dollars. According to the European police agency Interpol, the black market in art is the fourth largest criminal enterprise globally after illegal drugs, money laundering, and weapons. Approximately five percent of all art has been stolen at some point in its history; most stolen art is never recovered by its rightful owners.

Far more common than art theft by patriotic individuals is theft by institutions and governments for nationalistic self-aggrandizement. The Roman Empire took fine statuary from Greece for the adornment of Rome, and during the centuries of modern imperial and colonial European expansion, the theft of art objects from conquered countries was routine. Perugia's belief that France had stolen the Mona Lisa was incorrect, but not ridiculous: the French emperor Napoleon, who ruled France from 1802 to 1815 and conquered most of continental Europe, systematically stripped other countries' art museums and had their treasures sent to France. The only reason Mona Lisa was not stolen by Napoleon was that it happened to be a French possession already. Indeed, Perugia was only the second man to keep the Mona Lisa in his bedroom: for two years, Napoleon had it hung in his own bedchamber.

Exceeding even Napoleon as regards art theft was the Nazi regime, which conquered most of Europe in the early years of World War II (1939–1945). The Nazis stole tens of thousands of art objects, many from Jews whom it killed. Many of these stolen art objects have since passed into museum and private collections.

An ongoing controversy over possibly stolen art with patriotic or nationalistic overtones concerns the Elgin Marbles displayed in the British Museum in London. The marbles are a large set of illustrative carvings in marble that originally adorned the Parthenon in Athens, Greece (built in the fifth century B.C.). Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was British ambassador to the Turkish Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. At that time, the Turks occupied Greece. Accounts vary as to whether Elgin simply took the marbles or obtained legal permission: if he did obtain permission to remove the marbles, he obtained it from the Turks, not the Greeks. In any case, over fifty blocks of magnificent ancient carvings were removed to England. In 1816, the British Museum bought the marbles from Elgin for £35,000.

Today, Greece views the Elgin Marbles as stolen property, and pressure from the Greek government and others to return the marbles to Greece has been strong. President Bill Clinton was among those saying that the marbles should be returned. The British Government refuses. In 2005, Egypt also demanded the return of a number of art objects now held by American and British museums which it says were stolen from it during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and has threatened to end work in Egypt by archaeologists from those countries if the works are not returned. Also, a 1970 Convention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established a legal framework in which nations may request the return of stolen cultural property.


Web sites

British Broadcasting System (BBC). "Elgin Marbles: The story so far …" 〈〉 Nov. 30, 1999 (accessed March 5, 2006).

Public Broadcasting System (PBS). "Finding that Mona was missing." 〈〉 (accessed March 5, 2006).