It was a Monday and the Louvre was closed. As was standard practice at the museum on that day of the week, only maintenance workers, cleaning staff, curators, and a few other employees roamed the cavernous halls of the building that was once the home of France’s kings but since the Revolution had been devoted to housing the nation’s art treasures.
Acquired through conquest, wealth, good taste, and plunder, those holdings were splendid and vast — so much so that the Louvre could lay claim to being the greatest repository of art in the world. With some fifty acres of gallery space, the collection was too immense for visitors to view in a day or even, some thought, in a lifetime. 1 Most guidebooks, therefore, advised tourists not to miss the Salon Carré (Square Room). In that single room could be seen two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, three by Titian, two by Raphael, two by Correggio, one by Giorgione, three by Veronese, one by Tintoretto, and — representing non-Italians — one each by Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velázquez.
A stunning display, certainly. But even in that collection of masterpieces, one painting stood out from the rest. That very morning — August 21, 1911 — as the museum’s maintenance director, a man named Picquet, passed through the Salon Carré on his rounds, he pointed out Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, telling a co-worker that it was the most valuable object in the museum. “They say it is worth a million and a half,” Picquet remarked, glancing at his watch as he left the room. The time was 7:20 A.M.
Shortly after Picquet departed the Salon Carré, a door to a storage closet opened and a man (or men, for it was never proved whether the thief worked alone) emerged. He had been in there since the previous day — Sunday, the museum’s busiest, as that was the only day most Parisians had off from work. Just before closing time, the thief had slipped inside the little closet so that he could emerge in the morning without the need to identify himself to a guard at the entrance.
There were many such small rooms and hidden alcoves within the seven-hundred-year-old 2 building; museum officials later confessed that no one knew how many. This particular one was normally used for storing the easels, canvases, and supplies of artists who were engaged in copying the works of Old Masters — a training exercise for those who wished to improve their technique. The only firm antiforgery requirement the museum placed on such students was that the reproductions could not be the same size as the originals.
Emerging from the closet, the intruder might have been mistaken for one of these copyists, for he wore a white artist’s smock. However, his garment had another purpose on this particular day: the museum’s maintenance staff also wore such smocks, apparently a practice intended to demonstrate that they were on a higher plane than “ordinary” workers, and if anyone noticed the thief, he would likely be taken for another of the regular museum employees.
As he entered the Salon Carré, he headed straight for his intended target: the Mona Lisa. Only four sturdy hooks held it there, no more securely than if it were a framed print in the house of a bourgeois Parisian. Later, museum officials said that the paintings were fastened to the wall in this way to make it easy for guards to remove them in case of fire.
Even so, lifting down the Mona Lisa and carrying it into a nearby enclosed stairwell was no easy job. The painting itself weighs approximately eighteen pounds, for Leonardo painted it not on canvas but on three slabs of wood. A few months earlier, the museum’s directors had taken steps to physically protect the Mona Lisa by reinforcing it with a massive wooden brace and placing it inside a glass-fronted box, adding 150 pounds to the weight. The decorative Renaissance frame contributed perhaps 30 additional pounds, bringing the total to nearly 200 pounds.
Once safely out of sight behind the closed door of the stairwell, the thief quickly stripped the painting of all its protective “garments” — the brace, the glass case, and the frame. Since the Mona Lisa’s close-grained wood, an inch and a half thick, made it impossible to roll up, the thief slipped the work underneath his smock. Measuring approximately thirty by twenty-one inches, the painting was small enough to avoid detection.
Though evidently familiar with the layout of the museum, the thief had made one mistake in his planning. The enclosed stairway led down to the first floor of the museum, but at the bottom was a locked door. The thief had obtained a key, but now it failed to work. Desperately, he used a screwdriver to remove the doorknob — but then heard footsteps coming from above.
Down the stairs came one of the Louvre’s plumbers, a man named Sauvet. Later, Sauvet — the only man to witness the thief inside the museum — testified that he saw one man (only one), dressed as a museum employee. The man complained that the doorknob was missing. Helpfully, Sauvet unlocked the door with his own key and even produced a pliers to turn the mechanism to open the door. The plumber suggested that they leave it open in case anyone else should use the staircase. The thief agreed and went on about his business.
The door opened onto a courtyard, the Cour du Sphinx. From there the thief crossed through another gallery and into the Cour Visconti and then — probably trying not to appear in a hurry — headed toward the main entrance of the museum. Few guards were on duty that day, because it was felt they were only necessary when the public was admitted. However, there was one assigned to that entrance, the last barrier between the thief and the city. As luck would have it, he had left his post to get a bucket of water to clean the vestibule. He never saw the thief, or thieves, leave the building.
One person outside did: a passerby who noticed a man on the sidewalk carrying a package wrapped in white cloth (the smock that he had used to impersonate a workman). The witness recalled seeing the man throw a shiny metal object into the ditch along the edge of the street. The passerby glanced at it. It was a doorknob.
Inside the museum, all was serene and would remain so for quite some time. At 8:35 A.M. Picquet passed through the Salon Carré again and noted that the painting was gone. He thought little of it at the time, for the museum’s photographers freely removed objects without notice and took them to a studio elsewhere in the building. Indeed, Picquet even remarked to his workers, “I guess the authorities have removed it because they thought we would steal it!” 3 His quip seemed less humorous later.
Incredibly, all through that day no one thought it alarming that there was an empty space where the Mona Lisa should have been. Not until Tuesday, when the Louvre again opened its doors to the public, did anyone express concern over the fact that the world’s most famous painting was missing from its usual place. Louis Beroud, an artist, set up his easel in the Salon Carré. He was not there to copy a particular work. His intention was to create a genre painting that would show much of the room and the contents of its walls. (Sometimes Beroud’s scenes included attractive young women viewing the museum’s collection. His paintings, and others like them, were popular with foreign visitors who wanted something more than postcards as souvenirs of their trips to Paris.)
Beroud noticed at once that the centerpiece of his intended work was missing. He complained to a guard, who shrugged. Like Picquet the day before, he assumed the Mona Lisa had been removed to the photographer’s studio. Beroud persisted. His time was valuable. No one had scheduled a removal of the painting. How long would it take before it was returned?
To stop Beroud’s badgering, the guard finally went to see the photographer, who denied having anything to do with the painting. Perhaps it had been taken by a curator for cleaning? No. Finally, the guard thought it wise to inform a superior. A search began and soon became increasingly frantic. The director of the museum was on vacation, so the unthinkable news filtered up to the acting head, Georges Bénédite: Elle est partie! She’s gone.