The International Cult of Copycat Art Thieves

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On the morning of August 21, 1911, an out-of-work Italian carpenter, dressed as a repairman, removed a painting from the wall of the Louvre and walked out with it under his smock. When he got home, he put the contraband in a wooden trunk and waited for the alarms to sound. But none did. Paris went on with her day. In fact, for more than 24 hours no one noticed the painting was missing—most peculiar, considering it was the Mona Lisa. How did a small-time crook, working alone, make off with the world’s most famous painting in broad daylight?

Truth be told, it was pretty easy. A year earlier, the museum had briefly hired the man, Vincenzo Peruggia, to install glass cases over some of its paintings. Peruggia had actually handled the Mona Lisa—felt its weight, its corners, its depth—so when the moment came, he knew exactly how to conceal it. On that fateful Monday the Louvre was closed for cleaning (another detail Peruggia knew beforehand), and security was pared down to just 10 guards—10 bored military retirees spread out over eight miles of galleries. A workman did catch Peruggia on his way out, however, struggling with a locked door while holding a conspicuous 30-by-21-inch rectangle under his arm—so the man naturally took out a key and opened the door for him.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Within a few days the Police Nationale had a prime suspect: Guillaume Apollinaire, a provocative French poet who had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down and who, though innocent of this theft, had been complicit in an earlier Louvre theft, the 1907 robbery of some Egyptian statuettes. The trail of stolen art led the Mona Lisa investigators right to his door. Upon questioning, Apollinaire implicated his friend, a young Spanish artist named Pablo Picasso, to whom he had given one of the figurines, and Picasso was also called in for questioning. Both men were exonerated, but suffice it to say, their relationship suffered.

Peruggia was finally caught in Italy in 1913, trying to sell the Mona Lisa to an Italian art dealer. But there’s another aspect to this story that interests me much more. Fast-forward to 50 years after the heist—exactly 50 years—to August 21, 1961. On that day a man allegedly climbed into London’s National Gallery through a restroom window, removed Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington and escaped the way he had come—a baffling accomplishment, considering the man was in his 60s and weighed around 250 pounds (his son later confessed to the crime). Exactly 49 years after that, on August 21, 2010, thieves entered a museum in Cairo and sliced Vincent van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers out of its frame with box cutters. They too escaped with apparent ease.

Oh, and remember that famous 2004 Munch Museum heist in which two thieves made off with two Edvard Munch masterpieces, The Scream and Madonna? That took place on, well, August 22—but the previous day had been stormy in Oslo. Chalk that one up to a rain check.

The recurrence of August 21st art heists, like that of pop musicians dying at the age of 27, could be mere coincidence—or it could be evidence of a shady conspiracy. Could there be an underground cult of Peruggia worshippers who, every few decades, executes a brazen raid in broad daylight, each one marking the anniversary of, and in some way paying tribute to, Peruggia’s audacious Mona Lisa caper? Was Peruggia’s own crime a tribute to a still earlier August 21st heist from antiquity? Or have I just been reading too much Dan Brown…?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

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