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When Mona Lisa met the top 10 bandit

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A hundred years ago a thief pulled off the biggest art heist in history by stealing one of the most famous paintings in the world. On 21 August 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee of the Louvre art gallery in Paris, hid in a broom closet during opening hours and simply walked out with the “Mona Lisa” hidden under his coat after the gallery had closed.

Mona Lisa

French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had once called forthe Louvre to be burnt down, was arrested for the theft and put in jail. From there he tried to implicate his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also questioned. Both men were later released.

After keeping Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece hidden in a trunk in his apartment for two years Peruggia took the artwork to Italy. He was caught when trying to sell it to a gallery owner in Florence. At his trial Peruggia claimed he stole the “Mona Lisa” out of a patriotic desire to return it to Italy and was only sentenced to six months in prison. Time magazine hailed Peruggia as one of the “top 10 bandits” of all time, alongside the likes of Jesse James, Ned Kelly and Dick Turpin.

Around six million people view the “Mona Lisa” every year. Before it was taken on a tour of the US in 1962–63 it was valued for insurance purposes at $100m, equivalent to around $720m in today’s money. For comparison, the most expensive painting ever sold was No 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, for which an unknown buyer paid $140m in 2006.

The story of the “Mona Lisa” is surrounded by myth, speculation and rumour. The identity of the sitter has been the subject of much speculation, with suggestions ranging from Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant, to Leonardo’s male apprentice, to Leonardo himself. In Dan Brown’s thriller ‘The Da Vinci Code’, the protagonist discovers secret messages within the painting.

Art historians have claimed that Lisa’s eyes contain symbols only visible with a microscope. The right eye is said to contain the letters LV, perhaps the artist’s initials, and the arch of the bridge in the background is thought to contain the number 72, although the accuracy of these claims is disputed.

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