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Called into Question

Did Pablo Picasso Steal the Mona Lisa?

Long Form Trivialities

On August 22, 1911, there was no joy at the Louvre. Sometime in the two previous days, someone had slipped in and made off with the Mona Lisa. There were no clues. There were no suspects. Security for the museum in those days was being handled by an understaffed and mostly ineffectual crew of 150 woefully underpaid guards that were in charge of the entirety of the collection totalling over 250,000 pieces so, of course, no one had seen anything.

So bad was the security at the Louvre that this was only the latest occurrence in a long litany of other embarrassments. Just months before the heist, a reporter had stayed after closing and hid in a sarcophagus overnight to expose the museum’s lack of any true security measures. This dearth of security is evidenced again by the fact that the Mona Lisa’s disappearance wasn’t identified as a theft until over 24 hrs after it was stolen (the staff assumed it was taken down for either maintenance or to be photographed).

Even after the discovery, clues were nearly non-existent. Days turned into weeks and the police were beginning to panic. They needed a break to appease the thousands of distraught art lovers that padded their way through the Louvre to look at the empty space where da Vinci’s work had  hung.

Enter Picasso, or rather, enter Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire was a writer, playwright, columnist, and poet…one of the more famous ones of the first half of the twentieth century. He was also and ardent defender of Cubism and is credited with coining the name, as well as the term: “surrealism”. He was also a good friend of Picasso’s and was part of Picasso’s gang in Montmarte, which also included the likes of Max Jacob and André Salmon.

For a number of years in Paris, Apollinaire had a secretary named Joseph Géry Pieret. In addition to his secretarial duties, at times Pieret would also sell artworks to Apollinaire that he had pilfered from museums, including two iberian statues from the Louvre that became the inspiration for Picasso’s “Mademoiselles de Avignon”.

Eight days after the painting went missing, Pieret walked into a police station and started talking…and talking…and talking. About not only his criminal exploits, but those of some “artist friends” he had sold artwork to. With this admission, it didn’t take long for the police to figure out that one of these “friends” was Apollinaire and shortly thereafter, he and Picasso were named as suspects.

Feeling the heat and suffering under the fear of deportation, Picasso and Apollinaire decided to put the stolen Iberian statues they were still in possession of into a suitcase and throw it in the Seine. But their artistic hearts betrayed them and, in the end, they couldn’t bring themselves to destroy the statues but, instead, turned them anonymously over to a local newspaper. A little later, Apollinaire was arrested, as was Picasso.

At the trial, Apollinaire confessed to everything having to do with Pieret and the stolen statues, but faced with a deluge of contradictory evidence, the judge threw the case out with little more than a stern warning for the two men and declared them innocent of the theft of the Mona Lisa.

Two years later, the painting was recovered in Italy when a former security guard from the Louvre named Vincenzo Peruggia tried to sell the painting to the director of the Uffizi Museum in Florence. He claimed at the time that the theft was an act of patriotism and that he only wished that Italy would again be in the possession of a national treasure that had been stolen by France. Peruggia was arrested in a sting operation by the police and Uffizi officials at his hotel in Florence, once the painting had been authenticated. Upon its recovery, the art world breathed a sigh of relief and the painting toured Italy to adoring crowds before returning to its place in the Louvre.

As for Picasso, this was far from his only brush with the law while he lived in France. The authorities had always shown contempt for the artist due to his unorthodox lifestyle and anarcho-communist views, even denying him citizenship on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940, saying:  ”As a result of all the information gathered, this foreigner has no qualification to obtain naturalization. Further, in the light of the above, he should be considered suspect from a national point of view.” Of course, this is now seen as a great, historical loss for France and a missed opportunity to claim Picasso as one of its own.

Sources for this story:

The New York Times – Picasso in Paris (a suspect but never a citizen) by Alan Riding 2003

Artsy. Com – When Picasso Went on Trial by Ian Shank 2017

Bonjourparis.com – Introducing Picasso’s Gang by Beth Gersh-Nesic 2016

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Biography of Guillaume Apollinaire – Sean O’Hanlan 2018

Mental Floss – When Pablo Picasso was suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa – Lucas Reilly – 2019

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