The Mona Lisa Caper: Picasso, Apollinaire, Géry-Pieret

Picasso, Apollinaire and the strange case of the theft of the Mona Lisa

Guillaume Apollinaire author, art critic, poet, essayist and friend of Picasso had employed the Belgian Honoré Joseph Géry-Pieret as his secretary. Géry-Pieret was a colourful and likeable character with a taste for theft.

It was he who, as he was leaving for a stroll around Paris, put his head back around the door and is said to have asked Apollinaire’s companion Marie Laurencin if she “needed anything from the Louvre”. Whilst Marie said no others said yes.

Security at the Louvre, in those days, was not what it is now and Géry-Pieret was able to pick up and conceal two sculpted primitive Iberian heads. Whether by luck or design, by 1907, the heads had found their way to the Bateau Lavoir and Picasso’s studio.

These heads and their rough, blocky, time-damaged appearance were to fundamentally change the course of art history. Their brute force and presence helped Picasso believe in the Demoiselles d’Avignon project.

Géry-Pieret returns to Paris and the Mona Lisa disappears from the Louvre

Géry-Pieret then disappeared from the Paris stage for a trip to America. In 1911 he returned and he needed money.

In August 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre.

Géry-Pieret resumed his close relationship with the Louvre this time taking a Phoenician statue. Anonymously contacting a newspaper he offered its return for a sum. The journalists at the paper did some digging and connected a famous Paris painter (without naming anyone) and the missing Iberian heads.

The police become interested

At this point Apollinaire started to get cold feet. He knew that it would not be long before he was accused of, at best, aiding and abetting a thief or, at worst, organising the theft of the Mona Lisa.

He had to get rid of the Iberian heads in Picasso’s possession before the police found them. He frantically tried to contact Picasso but Picasso and Braque were on a painting expedition in Céret in the south.

According to Fernande Olivier, (who wrote about the incident in her memoirs), when Picasso did eventually get back he and Apollinaire decided to destroy the evidence. They stuffed the sculptures into a suitcase and set out to throw them off a Parisian bridge into the Seine below.

The Pont Royal bridge in Paris which links the Louvre Museum site to the nearby Orsay Museum. The stone arches of the bridge span the Seine. The nearby Orsay Museum is visible behind the bridge in this view looking south-west.
The Pont Royal bridge which links the Louvre to the nearby Orsay Museum.

They set out on foot at midnight (from point 2, Picasso’s Cubist studio, 11 Boulevard de Clichy) but, whether through their artistic conscience or by the fact that they thought themselves under police surveillance, they never completed their desperate mission.

They returned in the early hours with the suitcase and the heads. The escapade served to clear their minds; they decided to return the statues through the intermediary of the same newspaper as Géry-Pieret.

A feverish atmosphere

With the theft of the Mona Lisa the atmosphere was feverish in Paris. Both Apollinaire and Picasso were foreigners in France. They risked prison and ruinous expulsion. French public opinion would have quickly turned on them had they been found guilty.

The police investigation duly led to Apollinaire who ended up in court and some nights in custody. He finally named names. Picasso was called to testify but when asked to confirm his relationship with Apollinaire said that he had never seen him before.

Through a press campaign and procedural incompetence the case fell apart, neither Apollinaire nor Picasso nor for that matter Géry-Pieret had anything to do with the theft of the Mona Lisa; that ‘honour’ went to Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman working in the Louvre at the time.

Vincenzo Peruggia

A contemporary artist’s impression postcard showing how Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. The series of drawings shows Vincenzo taking the Mona Lisa of its hanging, then hiding it under an overcoat and then walking out of the Louvre. In the centre is a portrait drawing of Vincenzo Peruggia.
How Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa: by taking it off the wall and hiding it in his coat. (1) © Wikimedia Commons.

The police caught up with him in 1913. The painting was returned and the Louvre has ever since then tightened up security. The Mona Lisa is now displayed behind bulletproof glass.

You now retrace your steps towards Place Pigalle and bear left into the square. With your back to the fountain you will now see our two next points of interest: points 3 and 4 which are situated on the south side of Place Pigalle.

All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1)

All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :

(1)AnonymousUnknown author, Vincenzio Peruggia stealing Mona Lisa, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons