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The Secret of the Mona Lisa

Art by some of the most famous painters in history, such as Leonardo DaVinci (who painted, among other things, the Mona Lisa) is often described in writings by their contemporaries. When the paintings that have been written about can no longer be found, art historians begin searching frantically for the missing artwork. Now they have authenticated a DaVinci painting that has been missing for centuries, and they think they've found another one, hidden behind a wall.

Leonardo DaVinci's "Mona Lisa" is the most famous portrait in the world, but it only became that way after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. The theft made all the newspapers and the French police searched everywhere for the thief--at one point, they even suspected Pablo Picasso. In the August 6-7 edition of the Financial Times, Simon Kuper writes, "On Monday morning, August 21 1911, inside the Louvre museum in Paris, a plumber named Sauvet came upon an unidentified man stuck in front of a locked door. The man--wearing a white smock, like all the Louvre’s maintenance staff--pointed out to Sauvet that the doorknob was missing. The helpful Sauvet opened the door with his key and some pliers. The man walked out of the museum. Hidden under his smock was Leonardo DaVinci's 'Mona Lisa.'"

But nobody knew who the thief was. Kuper quotes Monsieur Benedite, the Louvre's assistant curator at the time, as saying, "Why the theft was committed is a mystery to me, as I consider the picture valueless in the hands of a private individual." The Louvre closed for a week, but when it reopened, lines of visitors formed outside, all wanting to see the empty space where the stolen painting had hung.

The thief turned out to be a 32-year-old Italian named Vincenzo Peruggia, who was living in Paris and thought the painting had been stolen from his country. But it hadn't been: DaVinci had spent his final years in France and the French king Francois I bought the painting from him for 4,000 gold crowns. The Mona Lisa had spent two years lying on Peruggia's kitchen table. He was eventually caught and sent to prison, where he served less than a year, after he tried to sell the painting to a antique dealer in Florence. Ironically, the shop was shop was just a few streets from where DaVinci had painted the Mona Lisa 400 years earlier.

In 1932 the American journalist Karl Decker published an article about the theft in the Saturday Evening Post. He wrote that in 1914 he had run into an Argentine conman known as the Marques de Valfierno, who told Decker that Peruggia had stolen the painting under his orders. First, the Marques said, he had had a French forger make six copies of the Mona Lisa, which he shipped to the US. Then he arranged for Peruggia to steal the painting. After that, he sold the six copies secretly to American collectors, for millions of dollars each, telling each one that his copy was the real thing.

It's a great tale, but alas, it's not true. Kuper writes, "Here at last was a criminal brain worthy of the Mona Lisa. The only problem is that Decker almost certainly invented him. There is no external evidence for Decker's story, nor even for the Marques' existence. A century later, none of the six supposed copies has surfaced. Most likely, Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa single-handed, largely because she was small.

The newly-discovered DaVinci wasn't stolen, but it WAS missing for almost a century. In Art News, Milton Esterow quotes one scholar as saying, "It's up there with any artistic discovery of the last 100 years." The first documented owner of the painting was probably King Charles I of England, and after he was executed, it would have gone to Charles II. But there is a gap between the 17th century and the 19th century. In the early 20th century, the painting was bought by the British collector Sir Francis Cook and it was shown in the UK with other works from his collection. It has been most recently traced to an estate sale in the US about six or seven years ago.

Esterow quotes art expert Robert Simon, who helped authenticate the work, as saying, "I've been asked not to discuss it," but he did say that the consortium that now owns the painting has turned down an offer of $100 million and says, "I was told they're asking $200 million for it." Simon is one of the members of that consortium.

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