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On August 21, 1911, a man named Vincenzo Peruggia accomplished something every cat burglar wishes they could do. He stole the Mona Lisa, one of the most iconic paintings in the world. He did so with little fanfare, simply walking out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa tucked under his arm and wrapped in a white smock. 

Here’s the true story of how one man stole the most famous Da Vinci painting and how authorities eventually recovered it.

How He Did It

Vincenzo Peruggia worked as a museum employee when he stole the painting. As such, he understood how workers in the Louvre would enter the building in the morning and what procedures he’d need to follow to avoid drawing attention to himself. He entered the Louvre from a side door on August 21, a Monday, dressed in a white smock that helped him blend in with the real employees.

When the room containing the Mona Lisa emptied, Peruggia snatched it off the wall and swiftly entered a service stairwell where he removed it from its protective casing. He then wrapped it in his white smock and exited the Louvre with no incident. 

Recovering the Painting

Authorities recovered the painting two years later when Peruggia contacted Italian gallery owner Mario Fratelli. Peruggia reportedly grew impatient holding the painting and wanted compensation for “returning it” to its homeland. Fratelli secretly contacted the police and took the painting from Peruggia for “safekeeping.” 

The art thief was arrested at his hotel after Fratelli and his colleague Giovanni Poggi tipped the police off regarding his whereabouts. Newspapers proclaimed the painting had “come home” and Italian gallery owners displayed it publicly for months before it was returned to the Louvre in 1913.

Why Steal the Mona Lisa?

During police interrogation, Peruggia explained his motivations for stealing the iconic painting. He felt that the Mona Lisa belonged in Italy, as da Vinci was an Italian painter. Peruggia apparently believed the Mona Lisa was stolen by Napoleon during the 1800s and relocated to France for display in the Louvre. 

While investigators believed Peruggia was sincere in this belief, he was mistaken. Da Vinci brought the Mona Lisa to France as a gift to Francis I nearly 250 years before Napoleon was born. The Mona Lisa stayed in France from the 16th Century until Peruggia stole it in the early 20th. 

Some scholars dispute that Peruggia acted out of a sense of Italian patriotism while still noting that he was caught because he tried to sell the painting. Had he been truly patriotic, some argue, he would have donated the painting to a museum. Peruggia served a light term for the crime, in either case, only spending seven months of his year-long sentence behind bars.