map element Mona Lisa banner map element
map corner

Mona Lisa

of the
Mona Lisa

It was the art theft of the century... On August 21st, 1911, someone stole the most famous painting in the world from the Louvre. According to author Seymour Reit, "Someone walked into the Salon Carré, lifted it off the wall and went out with it! The painting was stolen Monday morning, but the interesting thing about it was that it wasn't 'til Tuesday at noon that they first realized it was gone."
more about finding that Mona was missing
The Section Chief of the Louvre makes a frantic call to the Captain of the Guards... who informs the Curator... who telephones the Paris Prefect of Police... who alerts La Sûreté, the National Criminal Investigation Department. By early afternoon,
Louvre gallery
sixty inspectors and more than one hundred gendarmes rush to the museum. They bolt the doors and interrogate the visitors, then clear the galleries and station guards at the entrances. And for an entire week they search every closet and corner – room-by-room, floor-by-floor – all forty-nine acres of the Louvre.

The news shocks the world. "Of course it had worldwide repercussions. It was on the front page of every major newspaper," says Reit. Who could have done such a thing? Perhaps one of the countless cleaners and workmen who labor in the Louvre, or the underpaid security guards. Even the Louvre administrators themselves are suspected of staging the theft to boost attendance. "One of the head directors was fired. Another was suspended. Various maintenance people were fined and questioned and vilified." (Reit)

The Paris Police blame the Louvre for its inadequate security. And the Louvre, in turn, ridicules investigators for failing to turn up even a shadow of a lead. To make matters worse, the various branches of French law enforcement bicker among themselves. "And when one department had an informer," adds Reit, "the other side would arrest him to keep him from being of help. It was like a Samuel Beckett play!"

It is the Prefect of the Paris Police, Inspector Louis Lepine, who finally takes charge. Based on interviews with museum staff, including everyone who had ever worked at the museum, and the scant evidence found at the scene, he pieces together a reconstruction of the theft. But for all his efforts, Lepine has no hard leads.
more about how the crime was committed
Initial reaction in Paris to the Mona Lisa's disappearance is decidedly one of denial. Many believe it is only a bad joke. When the Louvre reopens a week after the theft, thousands of Parisians file through the Salon Carré like mourners at a funeral. According to Jean-Pierre Cuzin, current Curator of Painting at the Louvre, "The public came just to see the void where the painting had been hung, just to see the nails which held her. Everyone thought that she was lost forever. She was a national treasure! There was a huge uproar. It was a major event."

"Then, of course, the French temperament took over," adds Seymour Reit, "and they began to have fun with it. There were jokes. There were riddles. There were cartoons. Somebody wrote to the newspapers and said, 'When are they going to take the Eiffel Tower? That's obviously gotta go.' They printed sheet music about the theft of the Mona Lisa, which they sang in cafes. There was a chorus line in one of the cabarets that came out all dressed as the Mona Lisa. I think they were topless!"

Leonardo and Mona Lisa
Famous music hall and theatrical stars are photographed as Mona Lisa, and there is a sudden boom in postcards bearing her image: leaving Paris with Leonardo da Vinci... thumbing her nose at France... on holiday in Nice. But Lepine and his team of detectives find little to be amused about, and doggedly pursue every possible clue. In the investigation that follows, some unusual suspects are called into question, yet the thief and the painting are nowhere to be found.
more about the suspects in the investigation
Her vanishing act in 1911 is not the first mystery associated with the enigmatic lady. Painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the early 1500s, little else is known about her. Even her true identity is uncertain. According to Cuzin, "The Mona Lisa has all the softness of shape and subtlety of light similar to other works of Leonardo. All of the marvelous faces by Leonardo – that of his Saint Anne, or of Virgin of the Rocks – they have faces of a sort of timelessness, almost unreal, an ideal beauty that is extraordinary. But in contrast, the Mona Lisa is a portrait of a specific person, with a relatively square face."
more about the mystery of Mona Lisa's identity
Leonardo da Vinci
Whoever Mona Lisa may have been, she has become the object of much affection and obsession over the centuries, perhaps because of Leonardo's own legendary reputation, the small number of works actually completed by him and his propensity for self-promotion. But mostly, her fame is due to his incomparable artistic mastery. As the story of Mona Lisa's disappearance unfolds, so does a greater appreciation of the Da Vinci masterpiece. Leonardo's brush strokes are among the most subtle and exquisite ever seen. His experimental techniques set the standard for generations of artists to come.
more about Leonardo's masterful technique
Though time has aged and darkened her complexion, Mona Lisa continues to cast her spell. Even centuries later, although avant-garde artists like Duchamp and Dali ridiculed her image, they were paying homage to the Mona Lisa as one of the most influential paintings in art history.
more about the myth of Mona Lisa
For two years her whereabouts would remain unknown. Then, in November of 1913, with all other leads long since exhausted, a letter arrives at the office of a Florentine antique dealer that would change everything...
more about how Mona Lisa was finally found
The Mona Lisa was eventually found very near the spot where she had been conceived four centuries earlier... having been hidden for two years in the humble apartments of her kidnapper only blocks from the Louvre. She rests again now in the Louvre museum – under considerably more rigorous security – where millions visit her each year.

"The woman is not particularly beautiful, and there is not a lot of color," says Cuzin. "There is not that much to see, yet this painting is the most famous in the world. The problem is she has become so famous that we don't really see her anymore. What would be extraordinary would be to see the Mona Lisa for the very first time, as if you had never seen her before."

Mona missing | the crime | the suspects | Mona's identity
Leonardo's technique | myth of Mona Lisa | Mona's return | timeline

Mona Lisa
detail from Guernica
Lilies of the Valley Faberge Egg
Hope Diamond
Taj Mahal
scene from Borobudur

Treasures Homepage
| The Series | Education | Home Video | Soundtrack
Crossword Puzzle | Producers' Notebook | Site Map