The tale of the six Mona Lisas

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Matthew Claxton

Langley Advance

Friday, August 21, 2009

It can be quite depressing reading police press releases. Most of what they let us know about, of course, is death, injury, theft, and fraud. Someone has been hurt or killed in a car accident, someone has been assaulted, someone has been robbed.

The details of the crimes themselves are petty and stupid. A man robs a bank without wearing a mask. A car is stolen and dumped. A purse is snatched from an elderly woman.

It’s enough to make you despair for the art of crime. The average criminal is idiotic, impulsive, and either intoxicated or desperate to become intoxicated.

Organized criminals are no better. The gangsters who’ve recently been shooting up Lower Mainland streets appear to be thick-necked yahoos concerned only with getting more tattoos and bigger SUVs.

Where are the true master criminals? Where are the guys who look at a map of the Vegas strip and say “We’ll need 11 guys to pull this off”? Where are the plans to tunnel into Fort Knox, to blackmail the world with an orbital death ray? Where are the supervillains stroking white cats and saying “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die”?

Great criminals do exist, maybe without the death rays and white cats. Today marks the anniversary of one of the greatest crimes in history: the theft of the Mona Lisa.

Largely forgotten today, in 1911 the theft shook the world. Someone had lifted the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci off its hook on the wall of the Louvre and walked out with it. Police searched everywhere, even questioning Pablo Picasso after a friend fingered him for the crime.

The real thief was Vincenzo Perugia, an Italian who had worked in the Louvre. He stole the painting when the museum was closed by simply hiding overnight and dressing as a staff member. He tucked the painting under his smock and walked past an unattended guard booth.

Perugia was caught three years later trying to sell the painting to an Italian art dealer; he claimed his goal was simply to return the painting to its rightful home in Italy. An Italian court gave him a lenient sentence of a little more than a year, and Perugia never had to buy his own drinks again.

So far, so mediocre. But later in the decade, an Argentinean con man named Eduardo de Valfierno told another story to a New York reporter. Valfierno claimed it was he who had put Perugia up to the job, but not because he actually wanted the painting.

Valfierno (who called himself a marquis) approached several wealthy but less-than-ethical art collectors. His question: If the Mona Lisa were for sale, what would it be worth?

He could have sold the painting to any one of them. But Valfierno had a better idea. He worked with a talented forger to create six identical copies of the Mona Lisa. Then he sold it six times as soon as the theft became public knowledge.

Valfierno had no need of the real painting, and the story goes that he and the other conspirators never even contacted Perugia after the theft. The real Mona Lisa lay under Perugia’s bed for most of the next three years.

The story might be entirely fictional. Valfierno’s story only became public in the 1930s, after his death. And none of the rich would-be buyers has ever come forward, of course.

If there has to be crime (and sadly there always will be) it would be nice if more criminals had some audacity. Future crooks take note: Petty thieves tend to get caught. Valfierno never went to prison.

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