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The Heist of the Century


When "The Scream," Edvard Munch's famous modern masterpiece, was stolen from Oslo's National Art Museum earlier this month, art professor Trygve Nergaard remarked of the theft "It's like someone stole the Mona Lisa."

Right on, Professor Nergaard. I'll bet that hardly anyone nowadays knows that Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece actually was stolen once -- right out of the Louvre.

The theft was accomplished by three men, all Italian nationals living in Paris -- Vincenzo Peruggia, Vincenzo Lancelotti and his brother Michele.

They didn't do it on their own initiative, however. They were paid and their strategy was dictated by a man whom they knew only as Il Signore.

In 1910, to combat vandalism, the Louvre's management had hired a firm of glaziers to install protective covers on many of the museum's art treasures. Peruggia was one of the workers. His job there gave him ample opportunity to observe security methods, guard rotation schedules, locations of employees' doors and locking mechanisms. He also knew how to operate the latch of the door to a small closet that was used by artists and student copyists to store their easels and paints each day at closing time.

Peruggia was the man Il Signore recruited, along with the Lancelottis, to carry out the theft. He supplied them with white smocks of the kind used by members of the museum's custodial staff every Monday. ("Dark days" -- when museums are closed for janitorial and maintenance work -- fell on Mondays back then and still do in most of the world's museums.) Peruggia was also given a key to one of the service doors, which Il Signore had managed to acquire. Finally, all the men were given detailed instructions as to the modus operandi to be followed.

On Aug. 20, 1911, a Sunday afternoon, just before closing time, Peruggia and his accomplices slipped into the storage closet undetected and settled down for the night. The service doors of the Louvre opened the next morning as usual at 6:30 to admit the cleaning people and museum staff.

Around 7 a.m., the three thieves, wearing smocks, slipped out of their hiding place and began sweeping and dusting vigorously. They "worked" their way to the Salon Carre, the room where the Mona Lisa hung. Then, with the Lancelottis on lookout at each entrance, Peruggia took down the painting from the wall. The Mona Lisa, only 21 inches by 30 inches in size, was easily concealed under Peruggia's smock. The thieves proceeded to the stairway and hurried down to the service door for which they had the key. On the way, Peruggia discarded the painting's frame and glass cover, making the package even lighter and less cumbersome.

At the door, Peruggia slipped the key into the lock. To his consternation, the key wouldn't turn -- the lock was stuck shut!

Peruggia immediately went to work on the doorknob with a screwdriver he had in his pocket. But just as the doorknob slipped off, who should appear but a member of the museum staff, a plumber named Sauvet, clomping down the staircase. With incredible presence of mind, Peruggia took the bull by the horns -- and started yelling indignantly that he and his pals couldn't get out because someone must have swiped the doorknob!

The totally unsuspecting Sauvet obligingly unlocked the door with his own key and let them all out. A block away was a waiting car, supplied by the thoughtful Signore, which whisked the thieves to Vencenzo Lancelotti's room. There the stolen masterpiece was inspected by Il Signore himself, who paid his henchmen generously for their work. Il Signore told them that he had to take a short trip and would return within a few days to pick up his painting.

The Mona Lisa lay hidden in Lancelotti's room for more than three months until Peruggia, an inevitable suspect for the police, had been interrogated and cleared after having his room searched. He was, after all only one of hundreds of possible suspects -- the police were investigating most of the staff of the Louvre as well as former staff members.

Once in the clear, Peruggia brought Mona Lisa to his own room concealed, in accordance with Il Signore's instructions, in the false bottom of a specially-made trunk. And there she stayed for more than two years.

Eventually Peruggia decided that Il Signore might never come for the painting and that he, Peruggia, might as well find a buyer and pocket the proceeds himself.

In December of 1913, Peruggia left Paris for Florence, Italy, after some preliminary correspondence with an art dealer there. Unfortunately, when the dealer came to view the painting, he brought with him an Uffizi Gallery official. Convinced that this was not a fake, but the genuine Mona Lisa, they called the police, had Peruggia arrested and notified the director at the Louvre of his good fortune.

Peruggia, who despite his arrest was considered as something of a patriotic hero by many of his countrymen (hadn't he returned an Italian painter's masterwork to Italy?), received a modest seven-month sentence and was promptly released, having already served seven months and nine days while awaiting trial.

So why didn't Il Signore ever return and pick up his painting?

Well, the mastermind behind the scheme, whose real name was Eduardo de Valfierno, was no small-time piker. In fact, he never again laid eyes on his stolen treasure. Instead he made a small fortune by delivering no less than six forged copies of Leonardo's masterpiece at $300,000 apiece to six unsuspecting but wealthy and unscrupulous American art collectors -- each of whom had previously agreed to buy the painting "if it should become available."

You see, de Valfierno had never intended to take delivery of the painting. All he wanted was for news of the theft to reach his six pigeons. Greed, he knew, would accomplish the rest. And the scheme worked just as he had planned.

De Valfierno changed his name, moved abroad quietly with his $1.8 million (probably closer to $25 million in 1994 dollars -- and lived in luxurious splendor until his death in 1931. Only then did his role in the theft came out.

A friend of de Valfierno, an American newspaperman named Karl Decker, who had been sworn to secrecy during de Valfierno's lifetime, broke the story. The story created a sensation and Valfierno's ego surely was surfeited posthumously when the public was informed of the brilliant scam he had conceived and executed.

Gordon H. Himmer writes from Baltimore.

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