Stealing the Mona Lisa: The World’s Greatest Art Heist

Jun 11, 2012 - by Marilyn Z. Tomlins

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa was the world’s most famous and valuable painting, yet its security depended on four ordinary hooks and the locked door of the museum – the Louvre in Paris – where it was on display. All that would be needed to take it down from the wall and to carry it off was a pair of strong arms.

by Marilyn Z. Tomlins

The streets of Paris were already hot but still silent on this summer morning just before eight. It was Monday, August 21. The year was 1911.

A few drunk revelers – men, their handlebar mustaches wet with perspiration, and women of low repute, necklaces of fake rubies and emeralds adorning their half-exposed ample bosoms – stood on the sidewalks outside the Folies Bergère music hall and the Moulin Rouge cabaret waiting for taxicabs – horse-drawn carriages – to come by and to take them home.

Elsewhere in Paris, burly concierges were sweeping the sidewalks in front of the buildings in their charge. Halting for a few minutes, they lit foul-smelling Gaullois cigarettes and shouted greetings across the streets to one another. 

Mondays were closing days for small family-owned shops, those which were open on Sundays, but the big stores of La Samaritaine, Galaries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché would be opening and pretty salesgirls were already at that hour emerging from Métro (the underground rail system) stations for a 10-hour working day.

The Louvre museum was also closed. Always open on a Sunday, Monday was the day the museum was being cleaned. Cleaners would polish its wooden floors, delicately dust the paintings hanging on the walls and wipe off the oily finger marks which had been left by admiring visitors on the glass display cases. It was also a day for repairs when the maintenance staff, dressed in white smocks so that they could be told apart from the lowly cleaners, who wore blue aprons, would change light bulbs, repair leaking faucets, or replace hooks on a painting. There would also be banging both inside and outside the building because an elevator, a new element in the capital’s Haussmannian buildings, was being installed and scaffolding covered part of the building.

Monday was also the day the Louvre’s official photographers, also dressed in white smocks, took paintings down from the walls to carry them to a studio elsewhere on the premises in order to photograph them for the museum’s archives.

It was, in fact, a busy day in the Louvre, once a residence of France’s monarchs but for the previous 117 years a museum visited each day by several hundred people, not all of them Parisians or even French, but foreign art lovers who had come to Paris on slow trains or slow ships. Air travel was still something of the future.

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