Stealing Mona Lisa

Mona-lisa-0905-02Excerpted from The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler in Vanity Fair:

Paris during the Belle Époque—the “beautiful time” between the late 19th century and the outbreak of World War I—had become an international center for painting, dance, music, theater, and publishing. The construction of Gustav Eiffel’s tower for the 1889 world’s fair had made it the “city of light”—both literally and metaphorically. The city could boast many of the world’s foremost medical and scientific institutions of the day, and Europe’s most modern manufacturing facilities. The face of the future, many believed, could be seen in Parisian leadership in such brand-new fields as motion pictures, automobile manufacturing, and aviation.

This made the disappearance of France’s most treasured artwork all the more unbearable. In the days and weeks immediately following the theft, anyone carrying a package received attention—including, at one point, a young Spanish artist named Pablo Picasso, who, four years earlier, had purchased several small Iberian stone heads that were filched from the Louvre by the secretary of avant-garde writer Guillaume Apollinaire. (Apollinaire spent a few days in jail, but Picasso had the last laugh—he used the Iberian heads as models for his Demoiselles d’Avignon.) Police at checkpoints on roads leading out of the capital examined the contents of every wagon, automobile, and truck. Fearing that the thief would try to flee the country, customs inspectors opened and examined the baggage of everyone leaving on ships or trains. Ships that departed during the day that had elapsed between the theft and its discovery were searched when they reached their overseas destinations. After the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm II docked at a pier across the Hudson River from New York City in late August, detectives combed every stateroom and piece of luggage for the masterpiece.

In the following days, from Manchester to São Paulo, the crime became front-page news. The Times of London declared, “Paris has been startled.” The Washington Post claimed, “The art world was thrown into consternation.” But perhaps The New York Times most accurately conveyed the enormity of the heist when it asserted that the crime “has caused such a sensation that Parisians for the time being have forgotten the rumors of war.” Nowhere, however, did the media cry out louder than in France itself. “What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?” asked Paris’s leading picture magazine, L’Illustration, which offered a reward of 40,000 francs to anyone who would deliver the painting to its office. Soon the Paris-Journal, its rival, offered 50,000 francs, and a bidding war was on.

[H/t: David Schneider]