The “Mona Lisa” — that enigmatic unfinished portrait, brushed by a renowned Italian polymath who hailed from Vinci, enveloped in cabalistic intrigue, lacquered with more commentary than any artwork, maybe any object, from scrutiny of her smile to forensics of her eyebrows, semiotics to science, the painting that pioneered new techniques, a Renaissance alchemy of enamels and varnishes, all to create that reticent smirk, those eyes gazing at you through time —
You know the one.
But a century ago, you probably did not know the one. She was rarely seen.
During most of her life, from the early sixteenth century up through the early twentieth, “Mona Lisa” was a somewhat popular painting, particularly among artists. But her visage was not widely circulated in public. If you wanted to see her, you had to visit the Louvre.
To become the super-famous painting we know today, “Mona Lisa” needed an epic event — something momentous to transform her into one of the most iconic images in human history.
She needed to disappear.
That’s exactly what happened on August 22, 1911, when the painting was stolen. It is the greatest art heist story ever told, because it was absurdly simple, relatable in one sentence:
After hiding in a broom closet until the museum closed, a former Louvre employee walked out with the painting under his coat.
That’s it. For more than two years, “Mona Lisa” was gone, and investigators had no idea where she went. While a copy hung in its place, many suspects were interrogated, including Picasso and Apollinaire. But with no significant leads, most experts predicted she would never be seen again.
Her disappearance ignited a media firestorm.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk about “Mona Lisa.” Newspapers and magazines seized upon the fascination, spewing reportage of not only the theft, but the painting’s significance. Experts were contacted; theories, devised. Here is my favorite story, written during Mona’s absence, from the New York Times:
This two-grapher has everything: dubious aesthetics, sketchy attribution, casual quackery, and, most of all, underminey snark. A mere three days after the “Mona Lisa” caper began, the paper of record was already throwing shade on the aggregation reporting (“the thousand and one articles”) of other publications, while coughing up a couple of sentences of its own curation and conjecture. The New York Times was trolling blogs before they even existed!
When the “Mona Lisa” was stolen, she transformed from a mere painting into the iconic image we know today — an object to study, debate, share. By disappearing, “Mona Lisa” became…
Unlike “Mona Lisa,” #monalisa was an international sensation, known to everyone. A deep obsession erupted, encasing her in the mysterious qualities still debated today: her smile, eyebrows, eyeballs, hands, teeth, age, gender, gaze, nakedness, background, location, pregnancy, photon reflections, cholesterol, self portraiture, name, golden ratio, facial paralysis, sfumato, encoded data, happiness, geometry, canvas — whatever topic a theory would stick to.
Instantly, art criticism went mainstream.
Purloin One, Copy Many
One crucial detail is missing from this crime story — motive. And in this case, the motive was ingenious.
The heist, as later recounted in the Saturday Evening Post (this was a long time ago!), involved several players: It was the Ocean’s Eleven of its day. There was at least one burglar, but he was essentially a patsy. The ringleader did not participate in the theft, but he did unite the dream team, including the most crucial members: forgers.
According to the account, the thieves never actually intended to sell “Mona Lisa” — that would have been foolishly dangerous. Instead, they intended something much more lucrative — to copy it.
Before even stealing it, the conspirators forged six passable copies of “Mona Lisa.” Then, after snatching the original, they sold those six copies — for millions of dollars each — to doofus American millionaires.
They stole “Mona Lisa” to create #monalisa.
Thick as Forgers
Our culture has developed a soft spot for art heists. We don’t often valorize thieves, but exceptions have been made for art muggers, who are frequently depicted as charming scamps. Perhaps we appreciate these burglars because they undermine the authority of the snobbish aristocracy, which claims valuation rights on rare, pretty things. Or maybe the art thief invokes Robin Hood, a fantasy of capital redistribution. Or it could be akin to the thrill ride of Bonnie and Clyde, an elongated and rebellious childhood.
Whatever the etiology, an entire category of culture — the art heist flick, which is my favorite movie genre — has emerged to capture our collective romance with stealing art.
The touchstone of the genre, How to Steal a Million (1966), stars Audrey Hepburn, who must seduce an art thief to save her forger father. The caper is a Freudian dilemma, modernized around the anxiety of replicant culture: a woman trapped between a father who copies and a lover who steals:
Hepburn and her amour (Peter O’Toole) hide in a museum broom closet (sound familiar?) so they can steal an artwork forged by her father. It is a mirror image of the “Mona Lisa” heist: Rather than steal the original to validate the copies, they steal the copy to validate the original.
Here’s a bit of dialogue, queued up from the trailer, in which Hepburn chastises her father for his dastardly profession:
The Daughter: “I keep telling you, when you sell a fake masterpiece, it’s a crime!”
The Father: “But I don’t sell them to poor people, only to millionaires.”
“Good artists copy, but great artists steal,” Picasso famously once said. The great art heist does both.
Theft & Forgery: Disappearance & Duplication
Art theft and art forgery have always been linked.
The biggest art heist of all time — excluding the Nazi pillage during WWII — wasn’t all that long ago. In 1990, thieves in Boston pinched $500 million in art — Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet — which has never been recovered.
How does that compare to the biggest art forgery? Because biggest is impossible to quantify here, I instead offer a list of favorite art forgers:
- Michelangelo, who began his sculpting career by forging Sleeping Eros, an ancient marble statue.
- Han van Meegeren, who made $60 million off Vermeer forgeries and fooled Herman Goering, as discussed in part one of this series.
- Pei-Shen Qian, the Chinese emigre who did not profit from his mastery of abstract expressionism, as outlined in part three of this series.
- Elmyr de Hory, the subject of Orson Welles’s F for Fake, who sold over a thousand forgeries — Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Renoir — from after WWII through the ’60s.
- Wolfgang Beltracchi, who was profiled on 60 Minutes earlier this year and claims his paintings still hang in many museums.
- Eric Hebborn, who, after confessing to deceiving many collectors, wrote the book on art forgery — literally. It’s a how-to called The Art Forger’s Handbook (1995). Soon after, he was found dead in an alley with his skull crushed in.
- Tom Keating, who forged up to 2,000 paintings from the ’50s through the ’70s, because he felt the art industry was corrupt, which it is.
- Mark Landis, who for three decades fooled at least 50 museums in 20 states with minor forged art works.
His numbers may not break records, but Mark Landis belongs at the top of the list: He is my favorite forger, still active until recently. Landis belongs in a special class, partially because his motives are pure, but primarily because of a chief distinction: He exists above the law.
Landis’ forgeries are widely known, with over a hundred fake paintings identified, but he has never been accused of a crime. His whereabouts are known; he does not hide from the authorities.
Landis does not profit from his forgery. Calling himself a philanthropist, he donates all his forged works to museums. He is deceptive, but not selfishly so. Landis is like the magician who tells you where to look but tricks you anyway.
His 30-year long con is the subject of a fascinating new documentary, Art and Craft. The trailer:
Stealing to Copy, Copying to Steal
During WWII, as the Nazis were pillaging art across Europe, the Louvre needed a way to protect the “Mona Lisa” from another theft. After some scheming, they devised their own caper:
They forged copies.
Just as thieves had created replicas to fool those doofus millionaires, the Louvre hid forgeries of “Mona Lisa” in castles across the French countryside, hoping to deceive the Nazis.
No one knows how well it worked, but the Monument Men, who recovered stolen art at the end of the war, reported finding “80 wagons of art and cultural objects from across Europe” hidden in a German-controlled salt mine. The report said it included “the Mona Lisa from Paris.”
Was it the original “Mona Lisa”? Or was it a forgery made by the Louvre? Or could it have been a replica made by the thieves decades earlier? There’s no way to say for sure. The authenticity of “Mona Lisa” is impossible to declare with certainty.
Only #monalisa is real.