LiteratEye #28: The Mona Lisa Theft Mystery – Was There a Mastermind?

Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fraud and Deception

Here’s the twenty eighth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #28: The Mona Lisa Theft Mystery – Was There a Mastermind
By W.J. Elvin III
August 28, 2009

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Assuming the world doesn’t end before the predicted date of 2012, many of us will be around to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris. Among suspects in the “unimaginable” 1911 theft was Pablo Picasso – and I don’t mean he was a suspect in theory; the young leading light of modern art was actually hauled into court for intense questioning.

There will likely be a surge of books, exhibitions, television shows and so on connected with the anniversary of the best-known art heist of all time. We can expect a great deal of drama. That’s not to say we can expect a great deal of truth.

One documentary currently in the works is directed and produced by Joe Medeiros, a former head writer for Jay Leno. Medeiros has done some intriguing investigative work in putting together his film.

Medeiros’ focus is the museum worker Vincenzo Peruggia who turned in the painting for a reward offered by an Italian art dealer. That was after two years of uproar in the press and fruitless investigation by various police agencies.

Peruggia admitted to the theft. In jail, he was showered with gifts, money and glowing messages from fellow Italians who viewed him as a hero for returning the Mona Lisa, however temporarily, to Italy.

Peruggia was not a professional art thief. The generally accepted story is that he was just another mesmerized victim of the haunting eyes and inscrutable smile – the distinction being that he acted out his desire to possess.

But there is a problem. Peruggia’s claims and testimony read as though scripted. And there are other problems with the generally accepted version of the theft.

“Much of the information about Peruggia is incomplete, conflicting, or just plain wrong,” Medeiros told the North Hollywood Reporter.

There are greater problems with the more fabulous tale of the theft, recounted some years afterward by journalist Karl Decker. In it, Peruggia is almost a bit player.

Decker is variously described as a mercenary, adventurer, journalist, spy – not that one role excludes any of the others.

Decker’s tale features a cultured, elegant swindler who commissioned the theft and then sold counterfeits of the stolen work to several American millionaires.

Two recent books repeated that story, and thereby provoked the frothing, foaming, hysterical outrage of several know-it-all reviewers.

What incensed the reviewers was that the authors would lend even a smidge of credibility to a tale demonstrated by academics and journalists to be a complete fabrication.

Well, if I had a nickel for every time journalistic or academic certainty has been turned on its cocksure head, I would be writing this from aboard my yacht in the Mediterranean.

One charge against Decker is that none of the alleged copies of the painting have ever surfaced.

Does it really seem likely that a person of enormous wealth, busily creating a cultured image to counter the stench of the skulduggery that made him rich, would admit to being flimflammed, losing millions on a stolen, that is to say “hot,” painting adored by legions of fans outraged at the theft? Sure.

And who is to say that none of the copies ever surfaced? The world is awash in fake Mona Lisas, be they touristy copies or fool-the-experts fakes rivaling Leonardo’s own work. There is mention of one fake examined by a team of experts who found “the age was right, and the quality exceptional,” though it was not the Mona Lisa.

The “age” factor is intriguing. The Mona Lisa was painted on wood. How would a con artist obtain 15th century wood in an attempt to fool the experts? Well, in Decker’s tale, the culprit scours the Italian countryside until he finds an armoire of appropriate age. Once dismantled, it provided the right wood.

As to the likelihood of a swindler passing off phony works of art to acquisitive American millionaires, that was one of the more popular games afoot in those days.

Culture-vulture “robber baron” sorts first collected – privately — many of the works now gracing America’s foremost art galleries. And it’s historical fact that swindlers took grand advantage of the craze.

But back to the story. Was Peruggia the Lee Harvey Oswald of the Louvre, disturbed, obsessed, acting alone?

Art thieves are not often connoisseurs. They are most likely clever criminals adept at state-of-the-art burglary. The mastermind directing their operations may have a wealthy buyer lined up, or may be working a ransom scheme.

Art theft comes right behind arms and drugs as one of the top three international criminal activities.

Not that I’m an expert but I have slogged through quite a bit of the literature on art theft. (Resulting in a 50-page book proposal on commissioned art theft, “Yes, Dr. No,” which a dozen or so publishers failed to appreciate as a potential super-best-seller).

So, while I’d be inclined to agree that Decker didn’t play straight in his tale – he was after all a star of the show in the rollicking glory days of “yellow” sensationalist journalism — I’m not ready to dismiss the idea of a mastermind.

(As a matter of fact, documentary director Medeiros mentions a confession from Peruggia several years after recovery of the stolen work, implicating “someone” who prompted him to steal the painting).

It’s also argued that Decker’s leading role in a Hearst newspapers hoax, the rescue of the charming, beautiful revolutionary, Evangelina Cisneros, from a Cuban prison, shows his untrustworthy character. The so-called “hoax” was one of the events sparking the Spanish-American War.

The critics might benefit from a look at the lengthy and informative article by W. Joseph Campbell, Ph. D., appearing in the fall, 2002, issue of American Journalism. It’s title says much: “Not a Hoax: New evidence in the New York Journal‘s rescue of Evangelina Cisneros.” But Professor Campbell has more to say about it — eight pages more, supporting his thesis.

I’ve just read the excellent Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti. It’s an exceptionally well-written overview of the theft, emphasizing the search that concluded with Peruggia’s arrest but also detailing Decker’s more glamorous tale.

The theft is also chronicled anew inThe Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. I haven’t read it, and the reviews have been a bit lukewarm, for whatever that’s worth.

There are, of course, many articles and reviews available on the Internet regarding the crime. There’s considerable variance in details as you read the accounts, some no doubt due to careless research or writing, and some because the event lies so far back in history’s mists that a lot of “fact” is merely guesswork.

Medeiros, the documentary producer, says the Decker tale is “just not true” but claims to have discovered facts that will “blow the lid off” the current popular version of the theft.

And to get back to Picasso for a moment: During questioning he denied even knowing the poet Apollinaire, who was in fact his closest friend in those bohemian days. Appolinaire had been taken away in handcuffs as a suspect in the Mona Lisa theft, though he was later released.

Picasso was turned loose after ratting on an acquaintance who had indeed stolen certain works of art from the Louvre.

Picasso’s attitude toward art fraud is worthy of note. In his later years, so the story goes, he was from time to time asked to authenticate unsigned paintings thought to be his work. If he liked the painting, he would sign it.


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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