10 "Alternative Facts" About Vincenzo Peruggia and the Theft of the Mona Lisa
Ever since the Mona Lisa was stolen on August 21, 1911, there have been myths and misconceptions about the theft and the man who stole her. And these "alternative facts" continue to this very day. Here are ten that many people think are true -- and why they're not.
1. THE THEFT HAPPENED AUGUST 22, 1911
The theft actually happened on Monday, August 21, 1911 between 7:00 – 7:30 am. Monday was the day the Louvre was closed to the public and only maintenance workers, Louvre staff and student copyists had access to the museum. The theft was discovered on Tuesday, August 22 when the museum reopened. Guards had noticed the empty space on the wall where the painting hung but assumed that it had been taken on Monday to the photographer's studio and simply not returned. It was around 11:00 am on Tuesday when a Louvre employee found the Mona Lisa’s empty frame on a service staircase. After a brief search by museum officials, the Mona Lisa was deemed missing and the police were called.
2. PERUGGIA WAS A CARPENTER WHO BUILT THE SHADOW BOX THAT HELD THE MONA LISA
According to the police records and Peruggia’s death certificate, he was a painter. He had been trained in his hometown of Dumenza to learn the art of decorative painting. In Paris, he worked for a company named Gobier that also did glazing work. In fact, they had been the official glaziers of the Louvre since the 1830s. In 1909, Gobier was brought in to help the Louvre framers put 1600 masterpieces under glass to prevent vandalism. The job was done over two years in two sessions that lasted four months each. Peruggia was one of the five trusted Gobier workers who cut and cleaned the glass. So by working at the Louvre, Peruggia became familiar with the layout of the museum.
3. TO STEAL THE PAINTING, PERUGGIA HID IN A MUSEUM BROOM CLOSET OVERNIGHT
This is one of the biggest misconceptions. No overnight stay was necessary. In his police interrogation, Peruggia said that even though he had not worked at the Louvre for eight months, he simply entered the museum around 7:00 am that Monday morning dressed in his customary workman’s smock. He was able to blend in with the other workers and wasn’t noticed. With security in the Louvre as loose as it was back then, it was simple for him to get in and out of the museum.
4. TO EXIT THE MUSEUM WITH THE PAINTING, HE HID IT UNDER HIS SMOCK
The police records say that Vincenzo Peruggia was 5’3”. Even though the Mona Lisa is a small painting, it measures 21” x 30” - too big for a man of his size to hide under a smock …unless he took off his smock and wrapped it around the painting and carried it out under his arm -- which is what he said he did.
5. THREE MEN STOLE THE MONA LISA BECAUSE THE PAINTING WAS TOO HEAVY FOR ONE MAN TO CARRY
Some say the Mona Lisa in its frame and glass weighed more than 200 pounds (see reference to Karl Decker below). But according to Louvre Conservator Vincent Delieuvin, the Mona Lisa’s curator, one man can carry the painting and its glass-covered frame. In fact, M. Delieuvin says he has carried it by himself.
6. PERUGGIA KEPT THE MONA LISA IN A SUITCASE UNDER HIS BED
According to Peruggia and his daughter Celestina, he first kept the Mona Lisa on a table in his room covered by a piece of cloth. Later, he made a wooden crate with a false bottom to hide the painting. He stored this crate in a 6x6 closet in his room. He used this trunk to bring the Mona Lisa to Italy.
7. PERUGGIA STOLE THE MONA LISA BECAUSE SHE LOOKED LIKE A WOMAN HE HAD BEEN IN LOVE WITH
Peruggia was known to have been involved with a woman named Mathilde Deutschmann, a cook in the home of a doctor where Peruggia had once had a job as a decorative painter. According to Mathilde’s police deposition, she met Peruggia in September 1912 – a full year after the theft. She says she never saw the Mona Lisa but did see the trunk in his room. Peruggia never told her what was in it. As far as Mathilde looking like the Mona Lisa... she was German with blue-eyes and blonde hair.
8. THE THEFT WAS ORCHESTRATED BY A CONMAN NAMED VALFIERNO TO SELL MONA LISA FORGERIES
This is a well-known story but it has no basis in fact. It first appeared more than 20 years after the theft in the June 25, 1932 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The article was written by a journalist named Karl Decker who claimed he was told the story by the man behind the crime – a shadowy conman who went by the name of the Marques Eduardo de Valfierno. Valfierno allegedly had a forger named Yves Chaudron make a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa and from that he made six more. Valfierno then
lined up six gullible American millionaires who were eager to buy the original. The conman paid Peruggia and two associates to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. Valfierno was then able to palm off the copies as the real thing.
The problem is that Valfierno, Chaudron and the six copies have never been known to exist. In our research, we found a number of articles about other art thefts from which we believe Karl Decker extracted material to concoct this story. Decker was trained as a journalist under William Randolph Hearst so he wasn’t above exaggerating or spinning fiction into fact. In our opinion, the Valfierno story is a complete fabrication.
9. IN LATER LIFE, PERUGGIA OPENED A PAINT AND VARNISH STORE IN HAUTE SAVOIE AND DIED IN 1947
According to his daughter and family records, he never opened a paint store and died in 1925.
Several days after Peruggia’s release from prison in 1914, World War I was declared. Peruggia joined the Italian Army, fought and was captured by the Austrians. He remained a prisoner of war for two years. After the war, there was no work for him in Italy so he returned to Paris, taking with him his young wife Annunciata. To avoid being detected by the French officials, Peruggia used his given birth name Pietro Peruggia (he was born Pietro Vincenzo Antonio Peruggia on October 8, 1881.) He died from a heart attack at the age of 44, on his birthday in 1925, as his daughter Celestina and his death records attest.
The 1947 date comes from articles in French newspapers that appeared in September 1947. They said that that Peruggia had recently died in the Haute Savoie region of France. But according to Peruggia’s daughter, this man was an imposter who had been using Peruggia’s name.
10. PERUGGIA STOLE THE MONA LISA TO RETURN IT TO ITALY
He did want to return it to Italy, but not for purely patriotic motives. In the Florence archives, we found the letters he wrote to his parents after the theft. They give a good indication of his true motive. Patriotism is never mentioned.