How a Notorious Art Heist Led to the Discovery of 6 Fake Mona Lisas

Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Human civilization has changed a lot over the past five millennia—but our instinct toward fakery, fraud, and flimflam seems to have remained relatively stable. In their new book Hoax: A History of Deception (Black Dog & Leventhal), Ian Tattersall and Peter Névraumont sift through 5000 years of our efforts to con others with scams and shakedowns of every description, from selling nonexistent real estate to transatlantic time travel. This excerpt reveals a convoluted art heist that netted not one, but six, of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous portrait(s).

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is, by a wide margin, the world’s best-known Renaissance painting. The pride of Paris’s Louvre museum, it is hard nowadays for a visitor to get a good look at. Not only do heavy stanchions and a substantial velvet rope keep art lovers at bay, but a jostling horde of phone-pointing tourists typically accomplishes the same thing even more effectively. While you can expect to scrutinize Leonardo’s nearby Virgin and Child with Saint Anne up close and in reasonable tranquility, you are lucky to catch more than a glimpse of the Mona Lisa over the heads of the heaving crowd. And that’s just getting to admire the painting: With elaborate electronic protection and constantly circulating guards, stealing the iconic piece is pretty much unthinkable.

At a time when the standards of security were considerably more lax, around noon on Tuesday, August 22, 1911, horrified museum staff reported that the Mona Lisa was missing from her place on the gallery wall. The Louvre was immediately closed down and minutely searched (the picture’s empty frame was found on a staircase), and the ports and eastern land borders of France were closed until all departing traffic could be examined. To no avail. After a frantic investigation that temporarily implicated both the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the then-aspiring young artist Pablo Picasso, all that was left was wild rumor: The smiling lady was in Russia, in the Bronx, even in the home of the banker J.P. Morgan.

Two years later the painting was recovered after a Florentine art dealer contacted the Louvre saying that it had been offered to him by the thief. The latter turned out to have been Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had worked at the Louvre on a program to protect many of the museum’s masterworks under glass.

Vincent Peruggia, Mona Lisa thief
Vincent Peruggia
Courtesy of Chronicle Books/Alamy

Peruggia reportedly told police that, early on the Monday morning before the theft was discovered—a day on which the museum was closed to the public—he had entered the Louvre dressed as a workman. Once inside, he had headed for the Mona Lisa, taken her off the wall and out of her frame, wrapped her up in his workman’s smock, and carried her out under his arm. Another version has Peruggia hiding in a museum closet overnight, but in any event the heist itself was clearly a pretty simple and straightforward affair.

Peruggia’s motivations appear to have been a little more confused. The story he told the police was that he had wanted to return the Mona Lisa to Italy, his and its country of origin, in the belief that the painting had been plundered by Napoleon—whose armies had indeed committed many similar trespasses in the many countries they invaded.

But even if he believed his story, Peruggia had his history entirely wrong. For it had been Leonardo himself who had brought the unfinished painting to France, when he became court painter to King François I in 1503. After Leonardo died in a Loire Valley château in 1519, the Mona Lisa was legitimately purchased for the royal collections.

So it didn’t seem so far-fetched when, in a 1932 Saturday Evening Post article, the journalist Karl Decker gave a significantly different account of the affair. According to Decker, an Argentinian con man calling himself Eduardo, Marqués de Valfierno, had told him that it was he who had masterminded Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa. And that he had sold the painting six times!

Valfierno’s plan had been a pretty elaborate one, and it had involved employing the services of a skilled forger who could exactly replicate any stolen painting—in the Mona Lisa’s case, right down to the many layers of surface glaze its creator had used. By Decker’s account, Valfierno not only sold such fakes on multiple occasions, but used them to increase the confidence of potential buyers, ahead of the heist, that they would be getting the real thing after the theft.

The fraudster would take a victim to a public art gallery and invite him to make a surreptitious mark on the back of a painting that he had scheduled to be stolen. Later Valfierno would present him with the marked canvas, which had allegedly been stolen and replaced with a copy.

This trick was actually accomplished by secretly placing the copy behind the real painting, and removing it after the buyer had applied his mark. According to Valfierno, this was an amazingly effective sales ploy: So effective, indeed, that by his account he managed to pre-sell the scheduled-to-be-stolen Mona Lisa to six different United States buyers, all of whom actually received copies.

Mona Lisa returned to the Uffizi Gallery in 1913
Museum officials present the (real) Mona Lisa after its return to Florence, Italy's Uffizi Gallery in 1913.
The Telegraph, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Those copies had been smuggled into America prior to the heist at the Louvre, when nobody was on the lookout for them, and the well-publicized theft itself served to validate their apparent authenticity when they were delivered to the marks in return for hefty sums in cash.

According to Valfierno, the major problem in all this turned out to be Peruggia, who stole the stolen Mona Lisa from him and took it back to Italy. Still, when he was caught trying to dispose of the painting there, Peruggia could not implicate Valfierno without compromising his own story of being a patriotic thief, so the true scheme remained secret. Similarly, when the original Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, Valfierno’s buyers could assume that it was a copy—and in any case, they would hardly have been in a position to complain.

Decker’s story of Valfierno’s extraordinary machinations caused a sensation, and it rapidly became accepted as the truth behind the Mona Lisa’s disappearance. Perhaps this is hardly surprising because, after all, Peruggia’s rather prosaic account somehow seems a little too mundane for such an icon of Renaissance artistic achievement. The more flamboyant Valfierno version was widely believed, and is still repeated over and over again, including in two recent books.

Yet there are numerous problems with Decker’s Saturday Evening Post account, including the fact that nobody has ever been able to show for certain that Valfierno actually existed (though you can Google a picture of him). Only Peruggia’s role in the disappearance of the Mona Lisa seems to be reasonably clear-cut. Still, although it remains up in the air whether Valfierno faked his account, or whether Decker fabricated both him and his report, the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre today is probably the original.

Why Don’t Bugs Eat People’s Bones?

ledwell/iStock via Getty Images
ledwell/iStock via Getty Images

In her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, mortician and best-selling author Caitlin Doughty answers real questions she's received from kids about death, dead bodies, and decomposition. In the following excerpt, she describes why the creatures that consider skin and organs a tasty snack just don't feel the same way about our skeletons. (It's nothing personal.)

It’s a lovely summer day and you’re having lunch in the park. You bite into a fried chicken wing, munching on the crispy skin and juicy flesh. Is your next move cracking into the bones, crunching them like the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”? Probably not.

If you yourself wouldn’t eat a pile of animal bones, why would you expect a beetle to show up and eat your bones? We expect too much from necrophages, the unsung heroes of the natural world. They are the death eaters, the organisms that fuel up by consuming dead and rotting things—and bless their hearts! Imagine, for a moment, what the world would look like without the assistance of the consumers of dead flesh. Corpses and carcasses everywhere. That road kill? It’s not going anywhere without the help of necrophages.

Necrophages do such a good job getting rid of dead things that we expect them to perform miracles. It’s like how if you do too good a job of cleaning your room, then your mom will expect perfection every time. Better to not set expectations so high. It’s just not worth the risk.

The corpse-nosher ranks are filled with diverse species. You have vultures, swooping down for a roadside snack. You have blowflies, which can smell death from up to 10 miles away. You have carrion beetles, which devour dried muscle. A dead human body is a wonderland of ecological niches, offering a wide range of homes and snacks for those inclined to eat. There are plenty of seats at death’s dinner table.

Remember the dermestid beetle? The helpful cuties we’d enlist to clean your parents’ skulls? Their job is to eat all the flesh off without damaging the bone. Let’s be clear: we don’t want them to eat the bone. Especially because other methods of flesh removal (like harsh chemicals) will not only hurt the bones, but might damage certain types of evidence, like marks on bones, which could be useful in criminal investigations. That’s why you bring in a colony of thousands of dermestids to do the dirty work. Plus, while you were over here complaining that they don’t eat enough bones, the beetles were also eating skin, hair, and feathers!

All right, but to your question: why don’t they eat bones, too? The simple answer is that eating bones is hard work. Not only that, but bones are not nutritionally useful to insects. Bones are mostly made of calcium, something insects just don’t need a lot of. Since they don’t need much calcium, insects like dermestids haven’t evolved to consume it or desire it. They’re about as interested in eating bones as you are.

But, here’s a dramatic twist: just because these beetles don’t usually eat bone doesn’t mean they won’t. It’s a cost-reward thing. Bones are a frustrating meal, but a meal is a meal. Peter Coffey, an agriculture educator at the University of Maryland, told me how he learned this firsthand when he used Dermestes maculatus to clean the skeleton of a stillborn lamb. Adult sheep bones are robust, “but in fetuses and newborns there are several places where fusion is not yet complete.” When he removed the lamb bones after the beetles finished cleaning them, “I noticed small round holes, about the diameter of a large larva.” It turns out beetles will go after less dense, delicate bones (like those of the stillborn lamb), but, Peter says, “there has to be a perfect storm of good environmental conditions and poor food availability before they’ll resort to bone, which would explain why it’s not more commonly observed.”

So, while dermestids and other flesh-eating bugs do not usually eat bone, if they get hungry enough, they will. Humans behave the same way. When Paris was under siege in the late 16th century, the city was starving. When people inside the city ran out of cats and dogs and rats to eat, they began disinterring bodies from the mass graves in the cemetery. They took the bones and ground them into flour to make what became known as Madame de Montpensier’s bread. Bone appetit! (Actually, maybe don’t bone appetit, as many who ate the bone bread died themselves.)

It seems like no creature out there wants to eat bone, really prefers bone. But wait, I haven’t introduced you to Osedax, or the bone worm. (I mean, it’s right there in the name, people. Osedax means “bone eater” or “bone devourer” in Latin.) Bone worms start as tiny larvae, floating out in the vast blackness of the deep ocean. Suddenly, emerging from the void above is a big ol’ dead creature, like a whale or an elephant seal. The bone worm attaches, and the feast begins. To be fair, even Osedax don’t really devour the minerals in the bone. Instead, they burrow into the bone searching for collagen and lipids to eat. After the whale is gone, the worms die, but not before they release enough larvae to travel the currents waiting for another carcass to comes along.

Bone worms aren’t picky. You could throw a cow, or your dad (don’t do that), overboard and they’d eat those bones, too. There is strong evidence that bone worms have been eating giant marine reptiles since the time of the dinosaurs. That means the whale eaters are older than whales themselves. Osedax are nature’s peak bone eaters, and they’re even sorta nice to look at, orangey-red floating tubes covering bones like a deep-sea shag carpet. Pretty amazing, given that scientist didn’t even know these creatures existed until 2002. Who knows what else is out there in the world, devouring bone?

The cover of 'Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death'
The cover of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death
W.W. Norton

Reprinted from Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty. Text copyright (c) 2019 by Caitlin Doughty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

10 Strange Questions People Asked NYPL Librarians Before Google

The New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room
The New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room
cla78/iStock via Getty Images

Some of us can barely get through a dinner conversation without consulting Google, our search histories littered with queries both banal ("Why do airlines serve peanuts?") and unusual ("Does the full moon really make people act crazy?"). But before the dawn of the internet, people often turned to librarians to answer life's little (and not-so-little) questions. A couple of years ago, staff at the New York Public Library discovered a small gray file box filled with questions posed to the venerable institution's librarians between 1940 and 1980. A new book, Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom from the Files of The New York Public Library collects these questions alongside answers provided by NYPL librarians today, and featuring illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt. We've rounded up some of our favorite questions below.

1. Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home? (1944)

A cartoon of an octopus in armchair with coffee and pipe
Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

Yes, but they require a lot of work and you better keep a tight lid on their tank. Octopuses are excellent escape artists. A good place to start your research is The Octopus News Magazine Online. Want to learn more about these creatures in general? You can find books about octopuses at your local library under the Dewey number 594.56.

2. What is the significance of the hip movement in the Hawaiian dance? (1944)

It’s complicated, depending greatly on the specific movement and the context in which it is placed given that the Hawaiian hula is a sacred ritual dance in which every movement of the performer is codified and deeply symbolic. As definitive a book as it gets is Mahealani Uchiyama’s 2016 The Haumana Hula Handbook for Students of Hawaiian Dance, which describes in depth the origins, language, etiquette, ceremonies, and the spiritual culture of hula. Ultimately though, the full significance could never be communicated in writing—to paraphrase the famed apothegm, writing about hip movements is like singing about architecture.

3. What time does a bluebird sing? (1944)

Well, the eastern bluebird sings whenever it is motivated to. Most often, males are motivated by seeing nice female bluebirds they want to court, or seeing them laying eggs (at which time they sing softly, which is sweet). Females are motivated to sing more rarely, but may do so when they see predators.

You can hear their recorded song at the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and learn more through Vassar College’s page as well.

4. How much did Napoleon’s brain weigh? (1945)

Unfortunately, Napoleon’s brain was never weighed after his death on St. Helena in 1821. In the 19th century there was a belief that the size of a person’s brain had a correlation with one’s intelligence, and there were a great number of estimates and speculation as to the weight of Napoleon’s brain. However, French officials refused the request of one of Napoleon’s physicians at the autopsy to open Napoleon’s head surgically and it was left intact—although almost bald from the amount of hair Napoleon had sent to his family and friends as mementos.

5. Can mice throw up? (1949)

A cartoon of mice on a roller coaster
Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

A study titled “Why Can’t Rodents Vomit? A Comparative Behavioral, Anatomical, and Physiological Study,” published in 2013 in PLOS One, concluded that they cannot and that “absent brainstem neurological component is the most likely cause.” Their brains are just not wired for this action.

6. What kind of apple did Eve eat? (1956)

The Bible fails to identify the varietal type of fruit, noting only that it was “seeded.” (It is depicted as a pomegranate and not an apple in all early representations.) The actual type of apple, however, is irrelevant to understanding the parable. The fruit symbolized the knowledge of good and evil. In this librarian’s opinion, that sounds sinfully delicious.

7. What is the life cycle of an eyebrow hair? (1948)

There are three phases in the life of an eyebrow hair: Anagen (growth), Catagen (resting or intermediate), and Telogen (shedding), with the average life span being about four months. According to the Bosley Hair Transplant Company, the average person has 250 to 500 hairs per eyebrow. The older you get, the longer it takes to grow eyebrow hair.

8. What did women use for shopping bags before paper bags came into use? (n.d.)

A cartoon of a woman carrying piles of groceries in her skirts
Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

The paper bag was invented in 1852, the handled shopping bag in 1912. Plastic shopping bags rose to prominence in the 1960s before achieving worldwide shopping domination by the early 1980s. Prior to the common use of a common bag, women—and men for that matter—used their hands and arms and any other vessel at their disposal to carry as much as they possibly could. The paper bag was actually invented so that shoppers could purchase more at one time!

9. What is the nutritional value of human flesh? (1958)

Hannibal Lecter would truly have to be a serial killer—if he intended to live solely from human flesh. The human body is edible and there have been documented instances of human cannibalism for thousands of years and across many cultures. And human flesh has been used as one form of nutrition from Paleolithic times to those desperate for food in twentieth-century concentration camps and among survivors of disasters in remote areas.

However, according to one recent study of “nutritional human cannibalism” during the Paleolithic (when there was no evidence cannibalism was practiced for a spiritual or ritual purpose) the human body is not an optimal resource in terms of the sheer number of calories that it provides when compared to other sources of meat. The study estimates that, if consumed, a human body would provide an average of 125,000 to 144,000 calories. This means that the meat on one human’s body could have provided a group of twenty-five modern adult males with enough calories to survive for only about half a day. In contrast, that same tribe during Paleolithic times could have feasted on a mammoth that, with 3.6 million calories, would have provided enough sustenance for sixty days. Even a steppe bison would offer 612,000 calories, which is enough for ten days of nourishment.

The study suggests that because humans offered such a comparatively low amount of calories that some examples of Paleolithic cannibalism that had been interpreted as “nutritional” may have occurred for social or cultural reasons.

10. Who was the real Dracula? (1972)

For an answer to this question look no further than Bram Stoker’s Notes and Outlines for Dracula that are held in the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. In her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense, Elizabeth Miller writes that Stoker got the idea for the name Dracula from the book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Maldovia by William Wilkinson that the author borrowed from the Whitby Public Library. In his notes he wrote “Dracula in the Wallachian language means devil.”

11. Why do 18th-century English paintings have so many squirrels in them, and how did they tame them so that they wouldn’t bite the painter? (1976)

For upper-class families of the 1700s, squirrels were very popular pets. Children truly enjoyed these fluffy devil-may-care rodents so naturally they made their way into portraits and paintings of the time. In most cases, however, the painter would use a reference from books on nature and animals rather than live squirrels, thus bypassing the need to tame them to sit still and pose!

From Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom from the Files of The New York Public Library by The New York Public Library and illustrated by Barry Blitt. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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