Of course, most Italians would argue that Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa was really stolen when Napoleon decided it would look nice in his bathroom and took it back to France with him. The most famous painting in the world still resides in the Louvre gallery in Paris. In 1911, a young Italian named Vicenzo Perugia stole the painting. In 1913, it was recovered and Perugia jailed. But that is nowhere near the whole story.

Eduardo, Marquis of Valfierno was a small-time South American conman who made his living by scamming art collectors. His associate, Yves Chaudron, was one of the most gifted counterfeiters in the art world. Chaudron would copy great paintings which had been lost or stolen, which the Marquis would then sell on to greedy collectors.

This obviously wasn't earning enough money to fund the Valfierno's lifestyle, which is why he hit on the idea of stealing the Mona Lisa, which was every bit as famous now as it was then. He had come into contact with Perugia who worked in the Louvre and had access to the glass case the Mona Lisa was stored in. These were the days before burglar alarms and CCTV - if Perugia could remove the painting from the case, he would simply be able to walk out of the gallery with it, and the painting would be theirs.

Valfernio immediately set to work finding buyers for the piece. It would be a difficult task, as the person who bought the painting would never, ever be able to breathe a word of it to anyone, let alone show it to people. The new owner would, effectively, have to keep it under lock and key for the rest of his life, and would only ever be able to look at it by himself. He would be paying a fortune for something he would have to keep secret until his death.

The Marquis found six people willing to buy it. Each of them was willing to pay $300,000. That's in 1911 dollars. I don't know what inflation makes that in today's money, but you can definitely add another zero to the end.

The robbery went smoothly. The gallery closed to the public on Monday and the only people there were a handful of cleaners and guards. Perugia went along on Sunday night, hid himself in a cupboard used by art students and emerged on Monday morning, wearing a workers uniform which allowed him to pass unnoticed. He removed the Mona Lisa from its glass case, put it under a sheet and walked out the front door of the gallery, unchallenged. It wasn't the most sophisticated robbery, but it worked. Perugia now had the painting, and all he had to do was wait for the Marquis to contact him. He returned to his apartment, put the Mona Lisa under his bed, and waited.

And waited...

And waited...

And Valfernio never called, because he had never wanted the painting.

In America, the moment Valfernio heard that the Mona Lisa had been stolen, he contacted all of his clients and offered to deliver it immediately. Yves Chaudron, the counterfeiter, had just completed six absolutely perfect replicas of the Mona Lisa, right down to finding the exact wood Da Vinci had painted on. These copies were delivered to the clients, each of whom handed over their $300,000 and then hid it in their most private vaults, each of them dying to tell the others that they now owned the most famous painting in the world.

Valfernio and Chaudron split their $1,800,000 (pre-1911 dollars), and vanished.

For two years, six unscrupulous collectors believed that they possessed the Mona Lisa, while the real one sat under the bed of a not-especially intelligent (but extremely pissed off) Italian. Eventually in 1913, he decided to be rid of it. He came across an advert taken out by a Florentine art dealer who was looking for rare antiques. Unbelievably, Perugia contacted him and told him straight out what he had. Rather than the large sum of money Perugia expected, the dealer sent around the police, who arrested Perugia and returned the painting to its rightful owners (or, at least, its previous wrongful owners).

The whole story of the theft only came to light in 1932 when the Saturday Evening Post ran an article about the Marquis. Valfernio had told everything to a journalist around the time Perugia was arrested, but made the journalist swear not to publish it until his death. Since then, it's been pored over both in non-fiction (The Fabulous Frauds, The Day They Stole The Mona Lisa) and fiction (a novel called The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa and a play named Lisa Lisa). It hasn't been made into a movie yet, although William Goldman does discuss it as a potential screenplay in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures In The Screen Trade.

Sources for this writeup:
Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures In The Screen Trade - William Goldman http://popularmechanics.boards.liveworld.com/transcripts/Boxtop/6-09-1998.1-1.html http://www.escolainterativa.com.br/canais/convenio_24h/trabalunos/uexav/fisquim/paint.htm http://www.vancourier.com/104102/entertainment/104102en4.html

arrogantsob says the amount of money comes out to just about $6 million, says http://www.cjr.org/resources/inflater.asp . The $300,000, that is.

Which makes Valfernio and Chaudron's swag roughly equal to $36,000,000.

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