When I was an undergraduate in college, I took your entry-level Art History Survey course- art history 101, if you will. In it, I learned all the basics- the meaning of the word chiaroscuro, how to identify the three types of capitals on an ancient Greco-Roman column, and what made the impressionists different from the post-impressionists (despite the obvious fact that the post-impressionists came later). But one day, I learned something rather...shocking. My smart, level-headed professor led us through all the details about one of the most famous works of art on the planet- if not THE MOST famous: its revolutionary use of perspective, the body positioning of the woman represented, and, most interestingly, the theories about the identity of that woman. She is so intriguing, what with those slightly hooded eyes and especially that mysterious smile. My professor said, “You can see her yourself if you visit the Louvre Museum in Paris.” But then she paused, and after a breath, she whisperer, “But, of course, the Mona Lisa on display is a fake.”
Sometimes people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. They might remember childhood field trips to museums stuffed with cranky old women, deathly silent galleries, and dusty golden frames hanging on the wall. But sometimes, the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, we are going to tackle one of the most famous art thefts in the history of the world, and its possible impact on a Renaissance masterpiece.
Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Standing in front of the Mona Lisa today is, no doubt, a crazy experience. At the Louvre Museum, the painting- which is smaller than you imagine, at 30 inches high by 20 inches wide- hangs in a climatized compartment which keeps its temperature steady at a cool 43 degrees Fahrenheit and a perfect 50% humidity, behind bullet-proof glass that is 1 ½ inches thick. Beyond that, museum-goers are kept behind a barrier of several feet. Finally, our modern age dictates that if we don't snap a selfie in front of something, we never saw or experienced it- so add in hundreds of iPhones held above heads. This is the truth of the matter: you can't really see Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece very well. But this fact doesn't stop the millions of visitors who brave the labyrinthine corridors of the Louvre in order to attempt to view it. Indeed, a Museum Index report released on CNN in 2016 noted that the Louvre is the world’s most visited museum, welcoming just shy of 9 million visitors in 2015 alone. And of those visitors, roughly 80% come to the Louvre specifically to see the Mona Lisa, or La Joconde, as she is called in French. So if the Louvre is the world’s top museum, the Mona Lisa, then, is the most visited work of art on the planet.
So, really- what's so great about this small wooden panel of a slightly homely lady with an extra-large forehead, nonexistent eyebrows, and a slight smirk? Well, there’s surely a lot that’s great about her, which I’ll get into shortly. But for me, the interest is something entirely more thrilling-- what if the world’s most famous work of art isn’t an original Leonardo? Before we get into that question, we need a little background.
Leonardo da Vinci is the truest embodiment of the Renaissance Man, if there ever was one. Not only did he actually live during the Renaissance, that European golden age, but his interests were vast and ran deep. He had his hand in everything from painting and sculpture to architecture, music, engineering, literature, math, botany, astronomy, and paleontology, to name just a selection of his hobbies. On top of all that, he was an inventor, credited with coming up with the first plausible concepts for human-powered flight, scuba gear, and armored cars.
The quickie version of his life reads something like this: Leonardo was born in 1452 in the Vinci region of Italy, near Florence- hence, his name, which literally means “Leonardo of Vinci.” His early interest in art led him to apprentice in the studio of the Florentine painter Andrea del Verocchio, who, as legend has it, decided never to paint again after witnessing his student’s talent, which was far superior to his own. This legend probably isn't 100% true, but boy, it sure makes a great story.
After he left Verocchio’s studio in 1478, Leonardo spent a few years working on artistic commissions for rich and famous Florentines, including the powerful Medici family, before traveling onwards to Milan, where he stayed through the end of the 15th century. Here, he continued to pattern his time as he had in Florence- completing projects of various natures for wealthy clients, such as Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. This was the reality of European art at this juncture in time: only the rich, or the Church, could afford to commission artwork. So Leonardo did what he had to do, and sought patrons to support his creations. He worked for dukes, Popes, and finally, kings, and in the process he formed some of his best works of art: The Last Supper; The Madonna of the Rocks; The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist.
But, of course, there is one painting that stands far above the others in the public imagination.
Generally it is believed that Leonardo began painting the Mona Lisa in either 1503 or 1504, after he moved back to Florence. Throughout the years there have been various arguments as to the identity of the subject--my personal favorite, by the way, is that it is a self-portrait of Leonardo in drag, but that’s a podcast for another day. The generally-accepted identification is that it is a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant named Francesco del Giocondo - hence the Mona Lisa’s actual or official Italianate name, La Gioconda, which the French translated to La Joconde. The majority of the painting was probably completed prior to 1507. According to Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary of Leonardo’s who’s known primarily today as a somewhat inaccurate scholar and artistic biographer, Leonardo “lingered over it for four years, and then left it unfinished.” Interestingly enough, the painting never left the artist’s possession during his lifetime. Even after Leonardo moved to France to work under King Francis the First in 1516, he brought the painting along with him. Some art historians even claim that he may have tinkered with the painting all the way through 1517, a full decade and a half after he began it. Upon Leonardo’s death in 1519, the Mona Lisa, along with Leonardo’s other possessions, was inherited by one of the artist’s pupils, before King Francis ultimately purchased the painting. Francis displayed the painting at his palace in Fontainebleau, where it remained until King Louis the Fourteenth moved it to the famed Palace of Versailles in the late 17th century. Luckily, Mona survived the violence of the French Revolution, and she was briefly given a place of honor in Napoleon’s bedroom until she was finally relocated to her current home, the Louvre, in 1804. Originally yet another regal palace, the Louvre was converted to the state museum of France in 1793, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Why did Leonardo hold onto this work for so long? We may never know the importance of this work for him, but I can speak to the importance of the painting from an aesthetic perspective--so hold onto your hats for a little art historical tutorial. First of all, it is a convincing and non-idealized representation of an individual-- a flesh-and-blood person who actually lived. She’s no goddess-- she’s, frankly, kinda odd-looking. And during the Renaissance, which was all about the idealism of the human body, this was new and different. Another breakthrough is Leonardo’s use of atmospheric perspective--the technique used to create a haziness that renders distance in a more naturalistic way. Basically, you can describe atmospheric perspective like this: the further away an object or landscape is, the blurrier and less distinct it becomes to the eye. Leonardo was a master of this, as well as sfumato, an Italian term that describes the masterly technique of combining tones and colors so subtly that they blend without noticeable lines, edges, or transitions. The corners of Mona Lisa’s mouth and eyes speak to this-- and that subtle smokiness only adds to her mystery.
So, there you have it: this strange and intriguing painting, a pride of France and display of technical prowess, enjoyed a peaceful life in the greatest museum in the world beginning in the early 1800s. Peaceful, that is, until a century later, when, suddenly, it was gone.
On the morning of Tuesday, August 22nd, 1911, a painter named Louis Beroud walked into the Louvre to study the masterworks and to seek artistic inspiration. Like his colleagues, he sought permission from the Louvre to copy paintings in the permanent collection, which was an activity that the museum encouraged-- and really, the Louvre was perhaps a little too permissive, letting artists store their paints and easels overnight in the galleries and nearby closets. The only rule, in terms of copying a painting, was that the artist’s reproduction could not be the same size as the original. This single guideline was the only real step the museum took to prevent art forgeries.
Beroud intended to copy Leonardo’s little painting, sure, but there wasn't any reason to prioritize this selection. You see, the Mona Lisa was famous, especially within France, but her reputation was nowhere near the international superstar status that we have assigned to her today. In fact, the painting received little attention until the second half of the 19th century, when the Romantics- those artists who sought feeling and emotion over realism - became enamored with Madame Mona’s oh-so-seductive smile. Only then did the work begin to receive significant acclaim and praise. Prior to that point, it was a renaissance masterpiece, but only one among many. At the dawn of the 20th century, she was popular enough that she received her own fan mail from admirers around France. As her fame grew, suitors brought her flowers, and some even attempted to propose marriage… to this inanimate object. But after a woman slashed a painting by the Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1907, officials determined that Mona, as well as other priceless works, was far too accessible, and that greater measures needed to be taken in order to protect her. And so, a specially-formulated glass box and custom frame were fitted around the painting. But this preparation was apparently not enough to keep her safe.
When Louis Beroud entered the gallery known as the Salon Carré that August morning, he noticed something rather odd. The Mona Lisa was missing, and in its place were only four iron pegs, which was the backing where the wooden panel was hung. Beroud was surprised and sought clarification from museum employees. Where was Mona today? He asked. Their responses- shrugs and claims of ignorance- surely did not bode well for the safety of the Louvre’s treasures at that time. Even the head of security noted that he believed the work had simply been removed in order to be photographed for publicity purposes. This, as you might guess, turned out to be an incorrect assumption, and I can only hope that that man was very quickly relieved of his security position. After it was confirmed that no one in the Louvre knew of the painting’s whereabouts, the horrible realization dawned: The Mona Lisa had been stolen, and its whereabouts were unknown.
I can only imagine the thoughts running through the mind of museum officials. At first, they harbored the naive hope that the panel had simply been removed and left lying in a nearby gallery. So the Louvre closed its doors to the public to undertake an interior search, calling in a sizeable corp of policemen to comb the galleries for the painting, or at the very least to find some clues to its disappearance. The closure that Tuesday stretched into a full week of intense scrutiny.
During the search, the Museum’s employees were alerted to stay calm and-- above all-- not to alert the newspapers. The Louvre didn’t want to alarm the public, but just as importantly, it didn’t want to face the embarrassment of the shocking revelation that its security measures were unbelievably lax. Of course, people quickly took notice of the closure, and the public indeed began clamoring for the reasons behind the barricading of the greatest museum in the world. The cat was then out of the bag, and the international press ran with the story. The news was trumpeted across the Western world: Mona Missing! Detectives Seek Stolen Painting! No Clues Yet Uncovered!
The interior search of the Louvre failed to turn up the painting, but it did turn up something: a protective glass box and a discarded frame emblazoned with the painting’s title. The worst was then confirmed: the Mona Lisa had been removed from her frame and then removed from the Louvre, and the thief, or thieves, had had enough of a head start that Mona could now be anywhere in the world.
What kind of leads or ideas did the Police have about those responsible for the theft? Well, at the beginning, they had too many. As soon as word got out that the painting was gone, everyone in Paris wanted to get in on the action. Local police stations were flooded with tips-- most contradicting one another, many possibly falsified, some paranoid. And then came the supposed sightings of Mona herself: the painting was found on a train in Belgium, spotted in Holland, and assumed to be on a steamer bound for America, like so many immigrants of the day. Naturally, conspiracy theories abounded, too- the one I like best is that the theft of Mona was a vast cover-up instigated by the Louvre’s curators, because the painting had been irrevocably damaged during a botched conservation effort. To hide their embarrassment over the destruction of a Renaissance masterpiece, the curators supposedly hid the original in the basement of the Louvre, claiming had been stolen- but only temporarily, until it could be replaced by a suitably believable copy.
A suitably believable copy. Keep that idea in mind- because we are definitely going to circle back to it.
Eventually, Louvre officials and police came to the same conclusion upon studying the discarded frame and glass box- whoever stole the painting knew art- how to hold it, how to separate a panel from its frame and backing, how to protect it, and how sneak it away without being noticed. After a few fits and starts, they began narrowing down their long list of suspects, finally circling in on a particular group of friends- an artsy gang led by the poet, writer, and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire and his close pal: a short, swarthy, and moody Catalan painter… named Pablo Picasso.
Apollinaire and Picasso were no strangers to scandal involving art theft. Around this same time period, both were questioned regarding a robbery of several small statuettes, also from the Louvre's collections. It turned out that the theft was actually undertaken by an acquaintance of Apollinaire, who nicked artworks occasionally as a means of pure entertainment. But when it was discovered that Picasso had actually ended up with a couple of the stolen figurines, it seemed like only a small step further to indict him of being involved with the theft of dear Mona. Indeed, Picasso had purchased the statuettes from Apollinaire’s associate, but he also clearly turned a blind eye to the inscriptions on the bottom of each sculpture that read “Property of the Louvre” in big, bold letters. Let's be honest- that is some truly sketchy behavior. So both Picasso and Apollinaire were brought in for questioning and were detained- Apollinaire was even briefly arrested- and under the stress of the situation, they did what many do in similar interrogation situations- they metaphorically threw each other under the bus. Apollinaire claimed Picasso knew of the painting’s location; Picasso balked, and blamed Apollinaire as a criminal mastermind. Luckily, however, it became obvious that their claims were unsubstantiated fabrications, and neither man could be connected to the missing Leonardo panel in any way. They were quickly released from custody, but you might imagine, Apollinaire and Picasso’s friendship was never the same again.
If there is one upside to the terrible theft, it is this: the Louvre experienced a massive uptick in the number of visitors, as thousands crowded the Salon Carré to get a look at the spot where Mona Lisa used to be displayed. Waves of tourists rubberneck to see la grande dame today- and over a hundred years ago, people did the same thing in order to glimpse… literally nothing. Eventually, of course, the novelty of this nothingness wore off, for both the crowds and the museum, and Mona’s former post was quickly filled in with Raphael’s famous portrait of the Renaissance writer Baldassare Castiglione- a fitting choice, really, since Raphael’s composition was inspired by the Mona Lisa. Mona was not forgotten, but as the months passed without sign of her or her captors, all of the world began to lose hope. In late 1912, France's deputy minister of fine arts reported, QUOTE “there is no ground to hope that Mona Lisa will ever resume her place in the Louvre.” Such a world-renowned work of art could never be sold on any public market- it is too identifiable, too famous. Really, whoever had taken Mona Lisa could only offer it in secret to a collector, probably one with insanely deep pockets, or he could simply hold onto it, enjoying her enigmatic smile within the confines of his own home. Either way, it was assumed that the chances of ever seeing Mona again were seen as slim to none. So with a sad air of finality, the investigation into the disappearance was officially closed.
Leonardo da Vinci’s striking masterpiece had been gone for nearly 2 ½ years and her case deemed a failure for over a year when, in December of 1913, a strange letter arrived at the shop of Alfredo Geri, an art and antiques dealer in Florence, Italy. Geri had recently put an ad in some local newspapers to drum up business and he was not surprised to receive an offer letter. What was surprising in this case was that the envelope bore a postmark from Paris, when he didn’t advertise there and, even more surprising, was its contents. The note was from a person calling himself “Leonardo,” and read as follows:
“The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an italian. My dream is to give back this masterpiece to the land from which it came and to the country that inspired it.”
Geri was, understandably, cautious and disbelieving of the note, so he sought the advice of the director of Florence’s famed Uffizi Museum, a man named Giovanni Poggi, who suggested that Geri write this so-called “Leonardo” and arrange for a rendezvous in order to check out the work being offered. Both men figured that Leonardo's was a dubious claim, and surely a request for an in-person meeting would be of little interest to someone peddling a worthless forgery. But Geri was surprised when “Leonardo” responded quickly with a reply-- yes, yes, I’ll gladly bring the painting to you. And this is how, on Thursday, December 11, 1913, Geri and Poggi found themselves walking warily behind a somewhat dodgy-looking man who introduced himself as “Leonardo Vicenzo.” Together they meandered through the streets of Florence to a nearby hotel where Leonardo insisted the painting was safely waiting for the experts. Yeah, right, you can imagine Geri and Poggi thinking, but they played along, with the art dealer agreeing to Leonardo's requests for hundreds of thousands of Italian lire should Geri be interested in purchasing said painting. What they saw in the hotel room, though, was what they never actually expected to see: the real Mona Lisa, undamaged, intact, and marvelously preserved, nestled like a newborn baby in a wrap of red silk inside a secret compartment built into the bottom of an unassuming suitcase.
Geri and Poggi were dumbfounded. Of course neither of them were Louvre employees or Leonardo da Vinci experts, but both were fairly certain that this was the real deal. Somehow, miraculously, they convinced this “Leonardo Vicenzo” to let them remove the painting in order to take it to the Uffizi for authentication and examination. Geri gently but urgently carried the painting away, and once out of earshot of Leonardo’s hotel, Poggi notified the local police, who nabbed the thief while he was in the midst of an afternoon nap and arrested him. How could someone who, until moments earlier, had held the world’s most sought-after work of art in his hands be so cool and calm, enough to snooze the day away? Who was this guy?
His actual name, it turns out, is Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian national who--wait for it-- was a former Louvre employee whose trade was as a glazier, or a workman who fits panes of glass into windows and doors. In fact, he was the one who had built the protective glass box-frame for Mona Lisa-- which would explain how he was able to release the painting from its hold so easily, and why it was discarded gently, instead of haphazardly-- perhaps Peruggia felt a bit of pride in his craftsmanship. Under investigation by Italian police, Peruggia confessed the details of his crime. He noted that he entered the museum on the morning of Monday, August 21, 1911, sliding in behind other custodial employees and repairmen, who performed many of their duties on Mondays while the museum was closed to the public. It really was an ideal time to undergo a great theft, considering that the number of employees on site on Mondays was greatly limited, even in terms of security staff. And of course, having worked at the Louvre, Peruggia had the advantage of a) being familiar with the museum’s layout, and b) himself being a familiar (and therefore nonthreatening) face to other Louvre employees. This meant that the crime was surprisingly easy for Peruggia to pull off. When he discovered a moment when the Salon Carré was empty, Peruggia lifted the Mona Lisa off the four iron pegs that secured it to the wall and took it to a nearby service staircase, where he quickly removed the panel from its the protective glass cover and its frame. He then wrapped his worker’s smock around the painting, tucked it swiftly under his arm, and left the Louvre through the same door by which he entered. He confessed that hid the painting in his Paris apartment-- an admission that would later astonish and embarrass the police, who had originally questioned Peruggia at the beginning of the investigation, as they had done with all Louvre employees current and former. The painting had actually been in Paris, right under their noses, the whole time. After two years of languishing in Peruggia’s hovel, Mona was transported back to Italy when Peruggia, with a high-minded mission, sought to repatriate her to her home country mainly due to a misconception that she had originally been stolen from Italy, instead of being brought to France by the artist himself. And with that, Mona Lisa returned to the limelight for the first time in years.
All the western world was ecstatic to hear the news that Mona Lisa had been found, against all odds. As they did when she was abducted, newspapers around the globe trumpeted her return. She was a sensational headline and front-page news, and after a groundbreaking two-week solo exhibition at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Mona was returned to the Louvre with the greatest fanfare on January 4, 1914. And like they did when she was missing, hundreds of thousands of people stormed the Louvre in order to see their icon safely back on display. Mona Lisa was finally home.
In retrospect, the story seems like a fairy-tale, almost Hollywood-like in its redemptive arc. A masterpiece stolen, presumed lost, then rediscovered unharmed. But something also seems a little bit off. Remember how calm and relaxed Peruggia was, enough to take a nap after Geri and Poggi removed Mona Lisa from his possession? It’s almost like it was a shock that he had gotten caught-- as if he hadn’t thought the consequences through very well. And how about the patriotic claim he made in his note to Geri as “Leonardo,” where he stated that his motive was as simple as wanting to return an Italian painting to Italy? But then why wait more than two years before returning it to Italy, if that was his ultimate goal? Peruggia seems to have been waiting for something- money, surely (and it was discovered that he wrote home to his family, bragging that he was about to become very rich). But what if he was waiting for something else- what if he was waiting for instructions from the real mastermind of the theft?
In June of 1932, nearly twenty years after the Louvre regained its star attraction, a story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, of all places, that reported an entirely different set of details. The article, titled “Why and How the Mona Lisa was Stolen,” was written by a reporter named Karl Decker who claimed to have met a mysterious man in 1914 who revealed the quote/unquote “true” story to him while sitting in a cafe in Casablanca. This man introduced himself as Eduardo de Valfierno, a marquis from Argentina, who proudly boasted of his long career as a very successful con man whose specialty was the business side of art forgery. His literal partner-in-crime was a French artist, art restorer, and eventual art forger, Yves Chaudron, who, together with Valfierno, had supposedly made a killing creating fake Murillo paintings for unsuspecting tourists. That was all well and good, but Valfierno wanted to… make things a little more interesting. Go big or go home, right? He formulated an idea to take advantage of the latest craze in the world of the ultra-rich. Newly-minted millionaires and billionaires, particularly Americans, were fighting tooth and nail to outdo one another for the greatest private collections-- and a side-effect of this was that not only did the art market grow increasingly robust, but so did the market for very, very good forgeries. Of course, collectors either didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, if they were being offered forgeries. Why not go whole-hog with this idea and pretend to offer them the very best in the entire world?
So he allegedly hired Chaudron to create six identical copies of the Mona Lisa, which Valfierno would show around the world to the wealthiest of potential buyers. But in order for each collector to believe that he or she was holding that real deal, one thing had to happen: the actual Mona Lisa had to disappear from the Louvre.
Of course Valfierno wasn’t going to do the dirty work himself. What if something went wrong, and he was caught? Plus, he didn’t know the ins and outs of the Louvre. He’d need an insider to get the job done. So, enter Peruggia-- a former Louvre employee who was not only familiar with the museum, but one who could be easily manipulated with cash, and a little bit of nationalist pride, to steal Mona. While Valfierno prepped Peruggia for his crime, Chaudron set up his easel at the Louvre in front of the Leonardo and meticulously copied every single detail of the little painting, essentially creating a template that he could later reproduce to exact scale and on aged wood panels. He left nothing to chance, and even formulated a method of producing the surface cracking endemic to old paint and varnish, called craquelure, via the use of a high-powered electric fan pointed closely to the copy’s surface. Chaudron attempted to recreate every centimeter as best as he could in order to keep any suspicious collectors off his back, including using methods and materials that would have been available during the Renaissance. But of course, the beauty of the crime was that a collector would never have access to the real Mona Lisa in order to compare its intricate details-- each collector could then assume that he or she was offered the actual, authentic painting. And since he or she could not advertize ownership, how would anyone know if there happened to be five other similar paintings swirling about the world?
After the news broke that Mona was gone, Valfierno jumped into action-- according to his statements in Karl Decker’s article, he was able to quickly sell all six Mona Lisas, netting the equivalent of nearly 90 million dollars for himself and for Chaudron. But, there was a problem, and that problem’s name was Vincenzo Peruggia. Peruggia was undoubtedly paid extremely well for his efforts, and the ridiculous plan could have never succeeded without his insider knowledge and technical skill. However, he quickly breezed through his funds and needed another infusion of cash. So he made a rash decision. For some reason-- probably to keep distanced from the Leonardo, just in case it was discovered by the authorities--Valfierno had left the original painting in Peruggia’s hands, with the intention of returning to the thief with instructions on how to handle and dispose of the stolen painting when the time was right. But Peruggia just couldn’t wait any longer, and he made the natural conclusion that the sale of the Mona Lisa would net him even more than the theft itself did. And so, in December 1913, he contacted art dealer Alfredo Geri in Florence.
Ah, the best laid plans.
Valfierno was dismissive of Peruggia in his statements to Decker, saying QUOTE “We would have returned the painting voluntarily to the Louvre in due time, had not a minor member of the cast idiotically run away with it.” Indeed, the most important thing, to Valfierno, was being able to pawn off six fakes in the time period that the original painting was missing in action. But are we really to believe Valfierno at his word that his intention was to reinstate Mona Lisa back in the Salon Carré? She had become the world’s most valuable painting, and he had direct access to her. I doubt that he’d want to give that up. Also, he was admittedly a crook and a liar-- so it’s plausible that honesty wasn’t his best policy and that his words to Decker were bogus and simply said to save face. But here’s the big question: if he was successfully able to sell six fakes, who’s to say that he wouldn’t have asked Chaudron to create just one more, swap it with Peruggia’s stolen original, and deposit that copy back at the Louvre?
Okay-- let’s get to the bottom of this. If Peruggia’s nationalistic claims and motivation didn’t seem plausible enough, then does Valfierno’s? No, not really. If anything, it’s even more far-fetched and cinema-ready. I’ll admit that it is far sexier to think about criminal masterminds and secret art forgeries floating around the world in the hands of furtive billionaires. But there are also some serious issues with the Valfierno tale. First of all, there are no records anywhere verifying Valfierno’s existence, other than The Saturday Evening Post article. Sure, it could have been a pseudonym and Valfierno was opting to hide his true identity, but nothing remains of this supposed evil genius. And there’s also the fact that this story didn’t break until 1932. That’s nearly twenty years after the painting’s return to the Louvre-- why wait so long to tell the story? Then, let’s not forget the tidbit about the six forgeries that Chaudron supposedly created. None of them have ever surfaced. Lastly, others have noted that Karl Decker wasn’t the most truthful author around, and he often liked to spice up his prose with sensational stories of derring-do. What’s more audacious than a swashbuckling story centered around the greatest art theft of all time?
As fun as it would be to believe that Decker’s story is true, it really just isn’t. That means that any suspicion that Chaudron and Valfierno may have stashed another fake Mona for return to the Louvre is equally ridiculous. The takeaway is that the facts point to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre as the “real” deal. As much as Chaudron may have attempted to copy every nook and cranny of Leonardo’s masterpiece, you just can’t fake the hand of an artist completely. And then there’s that craquelure that he supposedly recreated. You can try your best to fake it, but they ultimately act like fingerprints. Each painting’s craquelure is unique, and any conservator or a curator with a magnifying glass would be able to exactly match the lines across a painting with those seen in detailed photographs of the original. And upon her return, Mona Lisa was scoured and examined, not only for damage but for verification of authenticity-- which the Louvre confirmed and announced to the world.
But for me, then, another mystery remains. What really made my art history professor so convinced that the Louvre’s Mona was still a fake? A hugely intelligent, highly educated, brilliant historian--and one who was inclined to neither the rumor mill nor myth, I must admit-- she was sure the work was a skilled forgery. I remember that she leaned a little bit on the Valfierno story-slash-fable, but then I recall that she noted that the Mona Lisa had been stolen twice. Twice? When was the second time? Most books and articles point to the 1911 case, and very little is mentioned of any second supposed heist. But it is possible that she was stolen again-- this time, during World War II, when those ne’er-do-well Nazis coveted the most important painting in the world.
You’re not that surprised in this turn of events, are you? After all, many of us are already familiar with The Monuments Men, a group of Allies who were charged with protecting the great art that was feared as potential targets for looting and endangerment during the war. Art was specifically vulnerable during this period for two reasons--first, art needed to be shielded from any bombing or outright destruction from the war itself. But there was also another plan being hatched that equally imperiled Europe’s greatest pieces of art. One of Hitler’s ideas was to build an incredible museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria, with the intention of stocking it with the most important art in the entire world. The best way to do that, he figured, was to steal it- and unfortunately, the Nazis were all too successful at following these orders. Art historian Noah Charney estimates that about five million objects were stolen during World War II. Was Mona Lisa originally one of them? Well, as Charney narrates in his book, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World's Most Famous Painting, the Nazis thought that they had stolen Mona.
During the war, the Nazis, under the watchful eye of a fierce SS commander named August Eigruber, began stashing the spoils destined for the Linz Museum in an abandoned salt mine in the picturesque area known as Altaussee, about 80 kilometers east of Salzburg. The mandate from Eigruber was that if the art could not be defended against the Allies, the mine was to be utterly destroyed--with priceless Rembrandts, rare Vermeers, and everything else inside it. But was Mona Lisa stashed there, too? Charney says that there’s a certain amount of confusion, because while two primary source documents include the Mona Lisa as part of the loot, others--including inventories of the mine-- make no mention of it. So what actually happened-- was it looted and hidden by the Nazis at Altaussee, or not?
It’s almost impossible to say. And as Charney describes, the Louvre itself has historically been rather tight-lipped on the subject. He notes that the only surviving Louvre documents state that the Leonardo painting had been crated up on August 27, 1939, and was listed as being sent to one of five chateaux around France for safe-keeping from the invading Axis troops. And then a 1945 document attests to its safe return at the Louvre. Nothing exists to document the in-between times. But Noah Charney offers a very interesting explanation. He writes that Louvre officials revealed the existence of an identical copy of the Mona Lisa dating from the 16th century-- in other words, dating from roughly the same time period of the original’s creation. And let’s take a note of Charney’s use of the word “identical”-- the Louvre doesn’t describe this painting as “a semi-close match,” but instead says that it is so authentic that it is hardly possible for a non-specialist to identify it as a copy. This reproduction was one of thousands of works that were gathered after the war in what became known as the Musee Nationaux de la Recuperation, or the National Recovery Museum, which was the home for works of art whose original owners could not be located. The Leonardo copy was marked with the inventory number “MNR 265,” and it languished in storage for 5 years, unclaimed, until authorities passed it along to the Louvre. Funnily enough, from 1950 until the very recent past, it apparently hung on a wall outside the private office of the Louvre’s museum director. By sorting through this evidence, Charney (whose own expertise is in art theft), has come to the following conclusion: yes, a painting was indeed crated in 1939, but the Louvre crated up the copy, not the original, and sent it outwards into the unknown. Assuming that the Mona Lisa would be a prime target for Nazi looters, the Louvre probably kept the original hidden in Paris, while allowing the copy to be taken. As he says, QUOTE, “This would explain why the "Mona Lisa" did return from Altaussee, but why it may also be that the "Mona Lisa" never left Paris. It was the copy that was stolen, hidden at Altaussee, and recovered.”
The Mona Lisa has not left her home at the Louvre in over four decades, even though she was met with clamoring crowds in the United States in 1963 and in Japan in 1974. In 2011, the museum’s head of painting, Vincent Pomarèd, declared that it was absolutely unthinkable that their most popular painting would ever travel again, mainly due to the fragile state of the panel. But think, too, of the riotous response that tourists to the Louvre might have in Mona’s absence-- certainly the Louvre would not want to deal with such a headache if it wasn’t necessary. These reasons are legitimate and totally reasonable-- but, if you are a conspiracy-minded person, they might also be read as convenient spins to hide the truth from an unsuspecting public. Without the opportunity to borrow the work and see it in another institution, art experts from all over the world do not have the ability to closely examine the work with their own eyes and scientific instruments. Insiders have noted that the Louvre specifically sources all conservators and inspectors internally, and does not allow outsider access to the painting, and that many requests to scrutinize and conserve the work have been denied flat-out. And though the Mona Lisa has twice been attacked in the past-- and the subject of art attacks will be analyzed in an upcoming episode of ArtCurious-- doesn’t her current level of protection seem a little intense? Bulletproof glass, a sizable distance, a crowd-deflecting cordon, two security guards-- and let’s not forget the ever-present security cameras. Well, no, it’s not overkill-- the work is literally invaluable and it makes sense to protect it within an inch of its life. But it does also keep each and every person at an extreme distance… so who’s to really notice whether or not the Mona Lisa on display is authentic?
For the record, I choose to believe that the Mona Lisa on view is indeed the real painting created by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century. So much of a work of art’s value lies in being seen-- so it makes sense to me to have a masterpiece like this on view. But do I have actual proof that the painting is real? No. I simply accept the information provided to me by the experts. But even I must admit that if I really, really wanted to keep the world’s most priceless work of art safe and secure, it sure makes a lot of sense to put a nearly-identical copy on display in its stead. I would lock the original away in the vaults of the institution and keep everyone at enough of a distance that even a professional wouldn’t be able to really tell the difference. And then the daily crowd of thousands of tourists would inadvertently help to make it even harder to view the painting at all.
So, honestly--if you were entrusted with the Mona Lisa, wouldn’t you be tempted to do the same?
Thank you for listening to this, the first episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with editing help from Josh Dasal. For images that relate to today’s story, as well as links to further information, please visit our website at attcuriouspodcast.com. If you liked this show, let us know! You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find us on Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. And, most of all, please subscribe and rate us on iTunes and recommend us to your friends and fellow art aficionados, so that we can find more listeners. Check back in a couple of weeks for a new episode as we continue to bring you the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History.