The clock struck midnight. It was time to dispose of the evidence. Stuffing the stolen art into a single oversized suitcase,
and Guillaume Apollinaire darted from the door of their studio and into the thick summer air. A carriage would be too risky. They would have to proceed on foot.
The pair lugged the valise down the steep, cobblestone slopes of Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood. In the distance the Seine gleamed under the gas lights that still dotted its banks. Had the art been stolen from anywhere but the Louvre
itself, perhaps the duo would have been able to temper their panic. For now, the river seemed their only hope.
On August 22nd, 1911—some two weeks prior—the world had been jolted to attention by the breathless declaration of a museum guard as he careened into the office of the Louvre’s director general. The Mona Lisa, the very face of high art, had been stolen.
As news of the theft broke, an international dragnet quickly stretched from Europe across the Atlantic. The borders of France were sealed, and onlookers the world over were rapt and aghast. Yet in many ways, the theft of the Mona Lisa was simply the most explosive in a long litany of embarrassments to the Louvre.
Months before the heist, one French reporter had spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose the museum’s paltry surveillance. And had he tried, the canvases themselves would have been easy enough to pluck from the galleries. Whereas other prominent national museums, like the Italian Uffizi, had long mandated that its paintings be bolted to the wall, the bulk of the Louvre’s pieces—including the Mona Lisa—continued to hang unprotected. Museum personnel, moreover, were allowed to remove artwork with such unchecked impunity that guards would only report the absence of the Mona Lisa a full 24 hours after its theft, having previously assumed the painting was simply out for maintenance.
Even after the discovery, however, clues were scarce. Days passed. Then a week. Starved for leads, investigators were growing desperate. They needed a break—something, anything, to appease the hundreds of distraught patrons that now marched daily through the Louvre to behold the blank space where the Mona Lisa once hung.
And then, as if on cue, the clouds seemed to part.